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Criminal Justice Update

Fatal overdose prosecutions rely on solid investigations

Good police work at the crime scene lays the groundwork for a successful overdose death prosecution, according to presenters at a training event put on by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute.

“We need that scene information,” said Dr. Kent Harshbarger, the coroner of Montgomery County. “Law enforcement should communicate with the lab about what they suspect was going on at the scene.”

Such information helps narrow down what lab tests to run on the body of the suspected overdose victim, he said.

“I need the timeline. I need witness statements,” Harshbarger said. “What drugs was the person known to use? What were they doing before they died? Were they playing chess, or were they mumbling and incoherent?”

When suspected drug packaging or paraphernalia are found at the scene, the lab can test them to identify any drug residue, which would provide a lead on what tests to run on the body, he said.

Besides covering investigation techniques, the daylong training also explored the criminal prosecution of overdose deaths as homicides and how such prosecutions can be used to address illegal drug distribution, punish wrongdoing, and, ultimately, save lives.

About 175 peace officers and prosecutors from throughout the state gathered at Southern State Community College in Wilmington for the training.

“As part of our fight against opioids, we need to ensure prosecutors and law enforcement have the tools they need to safely and effectively investigate these crimes,” said Attorney General DeWine. “The training was designed to help investigators and prosecutors better build their cases and hold opioid dealers accountable.”

Sgt. Jonathan Overly of the Memphis (Tenn.) Police Department, who serves as a team leader for his department’s Heroin Response Team, said when overdose calls come in, agencies need to provide a rapid response, and they need to secure the scene.”

 “When uniformed patrol officers make the scene, it is their responsibility to determine what happened. If they determine it is an overdose death, the appropriate specialized unit is called to come out, the medical examiner must be contacted, a dedicated prosecutor must be contacted, and also, a forensics or a crime scene unit must be called.”

Teamwork and preparation are important to building a successful homicide case against the dealer, he said.

Chuck Thomas, deputy director of the Criminal Intelligence Unit at the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), said the unit collects, processes, analyses, and disseminates intelligence information to law enforcement agencies of all levels throughout the state.

“Analysts in our unit are trained to assist on anything,” he said.

Among the most popular requests are for link association charts, suspect work-ups, and case timelines. The unit also specializes in call-detail record analysis and cell-tower reports.

Unintentional drug overdoses caused the deaths of more than 4,000 Ohio residents last year, a 32.8 percent increase from 2016. Fentanyl, which is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and related drugs, were involved in 58.2 percent of those deaths. In some cases, fatal overdoses resulting from the distribution of opioids are being investigated and prosecuted as homicides.