Philip Seymour Hoffman and New York Law: When is an overdose Homicide?

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There has been a lot of coverage and commentary concerning the recent death – apparently by drug overdose – of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the noted actor. One article that raised an interesting issue was published a few days ago in the Guardian. It concerns the attempt to find out exactly who had provided the drugs that killed Hoffman. Per the article:

The New York police department’s intensive effort to determine the source of the drugs in an apparent accidental overdose is unusual. Courts have found in past rulings that under state law drug dealers can’t be held liable for a customer’s death.

Some quick research suggests that this is more or less correct. A 1972 decision immediately turns up – People v. Pinckney – an appellate division ruling later affirmed by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. The court in Pinckney reviewed New York’s overall statutory scheme for dealing with drug offenses. Noting, first, that it was comprehensive and, second, that it didn’t include enhanced penalties for drug sales just because the use of the drug resulted in the death of the customer, the court concluded that New York’s Penal Law does “not make the act of selling a dangerous drug, which, when injected . . . , causes the death of the user, a homicide.”

But it’s a bit more complicated than that, as we’ll get into below.

Not long after Pinckney, for instance, Kenneth Cruciani was convicted of manslaughter for injecting a fatal dose of heroin into a friend – at the friend’s request. He had realized, apparently, that because of her physical state and prior intake the dose was likely to kill her. On the other hand, she was a friend and she’d asked him to do it. And what’s a friend to do?

The Court of Appeals, in People v. Cruciani, affirmed the conviction. The defendant in Cruciani had gone a good deal further than just providing the victim with the drug, of course: he had actually performed the act that brought about the victim’s death.

In People v. Galle, a Court of Appeals case from 1991, the defendant hadn’t actually given the victim the injection that killed her. He had, however, given her injections earlier. Forensic evidence showed that those prior injections had contributed to her death, even though she had herself administered the final, fatal dose. The court found that these facts were sufficient to make out a case of criminally negligent homicide.

And then there’s People v. Garbarino Garbarino, a case out of Rensselaer County, in the Capital District, did not involve direct action but, rather, enabling and encouragement.

Mr. and Mrs. Garbarino had been indicted by a grand jury. The indictment alleged that they were guilty of, among other things, criminally negligent homicide. The evidence before the grand jury included allegations that the defendants had engaged in a drinking competition with Mrs. Garbarino’s teenage son – in the course of the competition, supposedly, they had allowed him to drink 25 ounces of grain alcohol – and he had then died. The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, concluded that the evidence would support a charge of criminally negligent homicide.

We discussed criminally negligent homicide (and manslaughter) in a prior entry. Criminal negligence, as we discussed there, is a failure to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk.

A fourth case involved ‘enabling and encouragement’ and a very different sort of consumable. People v. Duffy was originally decided in the defendant’s favor by the Appellate Division, Third Department, but that decision was later reversed by the Court of Appeals. The defendant, Duffy, and a friend had been drinking. The friend was distraught and implored Duffy to kill him. According the the Court of Appeals,

Finally, defendant — who later explained to the police that he was “tired” of hearing Schuhle complain about wanting to die — told Schuhle that he had a gun which he could use to kill himself. Defendant then retrieved a British .303 caliber Enfield rifle from his gun cabinet, and handed it to Schuhle, along with a number of bullets. He then urged Schuhle to “put the gun in his mouth and blow his head off.”

Duffy’s friend proceeded to do just that. Although the Appellate Division concluded that Duffy hadn’t believed that the friend would actually shoot himself, the Court of Appeals determined that Duffy had acted recklessly: in other words, that he had been aware of and had consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk.

We recommend, by the way, a Connecticut decision from the 90’s, State v. Wassil for a good overview both of the general issues and of New York law.

In any case, it would appear that – as the statutory scheme and case law stand at the moment – a defendant would have to do more than simply hand the drugs to another consenting adult in order to be convicted of homicide in New York. On the other hand, high profile cases like Hoffman’s have the potential, for better or worse, to bring about changes in the law.