Deaths from Drug Overdoses – Should Drug Suppliers be held Accountable?

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Drug supplier exchange drugs for money

We recently published a blog about the “A State of Trance” music festival in Sydney, where a 19-year-old man tragically lost his life from a suspected drug overdose.

As with many of our blogs, the post sparked a lively discussion during which some readers suggested that the person who supplied the drugs should be held accountable for his death.

But can a drug supplier ever be held legally accountable for ‘causing’ a person’s death, or does it simply boil down to a person’s free will in consuming drugs?

Can Drug Suppliers Be Prosecuted for Manslaughter?

The question of whether drug suppliers are guilty of manslaughter if someone dies as a result of consuming the drugs they supply is well settled in Australia.

A number of cases have explored the question; the most recent being a High Court case heard in 2012.

However, in order to comprehend the court’s reasoning in that case, it is necessary to understand some of the legal principles involved.

In every criminal matter, it is up to the prosecution to prove the ‘elements’ – or ingredients – of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt.

If they are unable to do so, the defendant must be found ‘not guilty.’

There are essentially four broad categories of manslaughter under the law:

1. Manslaughter by criminal negligence,

2. Manslaughter by omission,

3. Manslaughter by excessive self-defence, and

4. Manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act.

In the case of Burns v The Queen [2012] HCA 35, the High Court explored the question of whether or not a drug dealer can be convicted of manslaughter where one of their customers dies.

Natalia Burns and her husband were prescribed methadone which they would on-sell to others.

Customers would collect the drugs from their flat and either administer them there or take them elsewhere.

In some cases, Burns and her husband would assist their customers in administer the drugs.

In 2007 they were visited by a man named David Hay, who purchased methadone and injected it at their flat.

It was unclear whether or not the Burns’ assisted Hay to take the drugs.

Hay appeared to suffer an adverse reaction to the drugs, and although Burns offered to call an ambulance for him, he refused.

Hay was found dead in a public toilet in their backyard the next day.

As a result, Mrs Burns was charged with four counts of drug supply and one count of manslaughter.

The prosecution proceeded on the basis that she should be held liable for Hay’s death either because:

A. Her actions in supplying him with the methadone constituted an ‘unlawful and dangerous act’ which brought about his death, or

B. That she had acted negligently by failing to obtain medical assistance for Mr Hay after it became clear that he was suffering an adverse reaction.

Manslaughter by criminal negligence requires a duty of care to exist between the defendant and the deceased person.

In other words, the prosecution prove that the defendant owed the deceased person a legal obligation to take reasonable care to avoid harm to them.

Generally, a duty of care will arise out of a legal relationship where one person exercises responsibility over another – for example, teachers and children under their care, or doctors and patients.

However, the High Court in Burns held that drug dealers do not owe their customers a legal duty of care – even in cases where customers consume the drugs in their presence.

The court also rejected the prosecution’s argument that Mrs Burns should be liable for ‘unlawful and dangerous act’ manslaughter, finding that simply supplying a prohibited drug to another person is not a dangerous act.

Rather, it was the deceased’s decision to consume the drug that constituted the dangerous act.

A drug supplier cannot therefore be liable for another person’s voluntary and informed decision, no matter how fatal the consequences may be.

This is because there exists an important principle in law known as causation, which describes the relationship between the defendant’s conduct and the harm suffered by the other person.

In the case of manslaughter, it requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant’s conduct was the ‘substantial and significant’ cause of the other person’s death.

The defendant will only be found guilty where the prosecution can prove this causal relationship beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, the court in Burns found that an individual’s decision to consume drugs of their own accord broke the ‘chain of causation’ so that a drug dealer could not be held responsible for the death.

The case may have been decided differently if the deceased person was forced to consume drugs, or if they were unaware that they were consuming drugs, or if the supplier intentionally mixed a toxin that they knew was dangerous into the drugs – but these were not the facts in Burns.

The High Court’s reasoning in Burns reflects the law in England.

In R v Kennedy No. 2, the English House of Lords considered whether a person who had prepared a syringe of heroin and handed it to another person who later died should be liable for manslaughter.

In handing down its decision, the court succinctly stated that:

‘the criminal law generally assumes the existence of free will… informed adults of sound mind are treated as autonomous beings able to make their own decisions.’

In essence, the law recognises that individuals are normally responsible for their own actions – despite the potentially lethal consequences.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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