Drug dealers in Virginia, be warned: If you are selling heroin and one of your customers overdoses and dies, the feds are probably going to come after you.
That was the message from U.S. Attorney Dana Boente and Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring at a news conference Tuesday in the Norfolk area, which has been hit particularly hard by fatal heroin overdoses. Boente and Herring said that they are pouring resources into investigating and prosecuting heroin cases and that they want to put dealers on notice.
“We hope that they understand that they will be prosecuted and there will be severe penalties for selling heroin when someone dies,” Boente said in an interview. “And if people sell heroin, sooner or later, someone will die from their sale.”
The tough talk came as Boente, Herring (D) and other federal and local law enforcement officials publicized the guilty plea of a Virginia Beach man who sold the heroin that killed 23-year-old Monica Beaudry. Gregory Hatt, 28, pleaded guilty to heroin distribution resulting in death.
That charge — which carries a 20-year minimum sentence — gives federal prosecutors a powerful tool, although Boente noted that the Supreme Court has restricted how it should be used. He said that federal prosecutors would stay within those guidelines — charging dealers only when their drugs can be directly tied to a death — but that they would not hesitate to bring cases they believed were solid.
“If we can charge that within the requirements of the law, we’re going to, in appropriate cases, charge that case, and we’re going to be aggressive in those investigations,” Boente said.
Virginia lawmakers are also considering a bill that would make it felony murder to sell banned drugs that cause someone’s death.
Heroin and opioid overdose deaths have been a significant problem across the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses blamed on heroin have tripled since 2010, and 10,574 people died from them in 2014.
In Virginia, 244 people died of heroin overdoses in the first three quarters of 2015 — up from 239 for the entire year before. In Leesburg, fatal overdoses claimed the lives of three people in their 20s over a five-day stretch at the end of January and into early February, a police spokesman said.
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have long prosecuted heroin cases, particularly those involving significant quantities of the drug or in cases where users overdosed and died. In 2014, for example, a federal judge in Alexandria issued a 30-year prison sentence to a longtime D.C. drug dealer whose heroin was linked by authorities to the deaths of three young users.
Boente said he expects more such prosecutions, because he and others have devoted more resources to combating heroin. He has assigned prosecutors to investigate heroin distribution rings in particular, he said, and a lawyer from Herring’s office was working as a special assistant U.S. attorney on the issue.
Maryland and D.C. officials have seen similar spikes in heroin abuse, and they, too, have unveiled efforts to combat the problem. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose cousin died of a heroin overdose, commissioned a task force to study the issue, and that group recommended creating a recovery unit for drug-addicted inmates and tracking prescription data to help identify those who might be abusing pain pills.
Hogan also has proposed legislation that would make it easier for prosecutors to go after drug traffickers as part of criminal enterprises. Some police departments in the region have started equipping officers with naloxone, an anti-overdose drug. And President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal includes $1.1 billion to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic.
Boente said all such efforts are important.
“This can’t just be prosecutions,” he said. “It’s got to be education and prevention, and it’s got to be treatment.”