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Wording criticized in drug dealer manslaughter bill

A bill allowing law enforcement in New York State to charge drug dealers with manslaughter when their products kill is badly worded, ill-founded and not a good deterrent, legal experts and attorneys said Thursday.

A key problem, critics said, is that the bill as written applies not only to those who deal for profit, but to anyone who passes along or shares drugs with a person who overdoses and dies.

David Edwards, attorney in residence at New York University's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, has examined the scholarly literature on similar measures in other states and is unimpressed.

Prosecution of sellers, he said, is rare in such cases. "It's just hard to get drug dealers and kingpins with these laws," Edwards said. "It's people who end up doing drugs with the deceased who should be in treatment and are not morally culpable" who tend to be charged, he said.

New Hampshire has had a similar law for at least a decade, said Ann Rice, an associate attorney general there. During that time there have been no more than 10 prosecutions, she said, some of street-level sellers.

The measure is being proposed by several state lawmakers from Long Island, and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a potential candidate for state attorney general. (Ann Rice and Kathleen Rice are not related.)

While some see a risk of reckless prosecutions, Kathleen Rice said the law will dissuade major dealers and those who pass drugs to friends and fellow users. Judges, she said, have discretion to go easier on some than others.

Lisa Schreibersdorf, director of Brooklyn Defender Services and past president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said the measure represents a failed approach to fighting drugs.

"If you are a drug addict and sell drugs to maintain your habit, that's not going to be helped by being charged with manslaughter," she said.

Michael Cahill, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who has consulted for states on penal code reform, said the proposed law is built on what most legal experts would consider shaky underpinnings. The measure doesn't address intent and dilutes the clear cause-and-effect the law seeks between an action and the harm it causes. "I know it's unprincipled and it probably won't work," he said, "but that doesn't stop states from passing these kinds of laws all the time."

With Ann Givens

and Andrew Strickler

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