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There’s a growing effort in Chicago and some collar counties to hold drug suppliers, including street dealers, criminally responsible for overdose deaths
The hotly debated initiative is gaining support from some local police departments and Illinois’ top legal officer.
An I-Team data investigation found Chicago-area drug deaths are most likely to be pursued as a criminal killing in Chicago’s collar counties, even as critics warn the prosecutions could make deadly overdoses worse.
For some families, the investigations can’t come fast enough. In September 2021, Lee Polk’s 38-year-old son Adam died of an overdose.
“It was a really, really terrible thing,” Polk said.
He suspects the pain from an excruciating leg injury sent his son down a dark path of illicit drug use.
“There is no reason other than naivete about what he was ingesting that his life is gone,” he said.
Polk still has his son’s cell phone, which he believes holds the contact information of the dealers who sold him the drugs that were laced with fentanyl.
“I turned the data over to the law enforcement people, I heard nothing,” said Polk.
He prefers not to name the suburban police department in the hopes they actually decide to investigate his son’s case.
In Illinois, prosecutors are able to file drug-induced homicide, or DIH, charges, against those who provide illegal drugs that result in fatal overdoses. Use of the law has been sporadic but it could be picking up.
Recently in Chicago, police detectives started new training on how to build the homicide cases through digital evidence and autopsy reports.
Retired CPD gang crimes officer Terry Almanza pushed for that effort after losing her own teenage daughter Sydney to an overdose in 2015. Almanza is the founder of DrugInducedHomicide.org. She has become a national activist encouraging the use of drug-induced homicide laws.
“We need to send a message to these drug dealers that no more, they are going to be held accountable, if you are out there peddling this poison you’re going to jail,” she said.
“These are devastating families and communities. We’ve worked comprehensively on fighting the opioid problem and street drug trafficking is part of the problem,” explained Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.
He said his office is also prosecuting drug homicide cases focusing on drug deals that have crossed county lines.
“The collaboration between law enforcement working together on this at the federal, state and local level has enhanced as a result –so we’re coming after you and we’re coming after you working together,” Raoul said.
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office charged three men with drug-induced homicide in October following the fatal overdose of a Carol Stream man.
Carol Stream Police Chief William Holmer said his department worked that case and is committed to pursuing others.
“We recognize that there’s a community impact to these types of cases and I think that is why we continue to put priority in the commitment and resources that it takes to conduct these investigations because they are complex and they do take time,” Holmer said.
At the DEA lab in Chicago, the evidence for potential drug cases is increasing.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of samples that we brought in overall. So it increases by about 1,000 exhibits a year,” said Leah Law, supervisory forensic chemist at the DEA Lab in Chicago.
The lab’s work is used to support drug cases in the Chicago metropolitan area and across the Midwest. Chemists identify and analyze drugs seized by police: meth, heroin, cocaine and, increasingly often, fake pain pills bought online or on the street, which are laced with fentanyl.
“The number of counterfeit tablets we’ve been seeing has gone way, way up,” Law said.
Chicago DEA Chief Bob Bell said there has to be fairness when it comes to prosecutions, and the agency supports helping those with a dependence problem and providing more access to medication-assisted treatment. But with fatal overdoses at an all-time high, he said the DEA must also remain focused on justice.
“It’s also important that these scenes are processed as crime scenes so we can follow the evidence,” Bell said. “And we can follow that up to the traffickers, whether it be the violent street gangs in Chicago or up to a national or international cartel to hold them responsible.”
An I-Team data investigation tracked 154 criminal cases in metro Chicago, most since 2016. Of those, almost half were in McHenry County.
The collar counties continue to be more aggressive in filing such cases, with Dekalb, DuPage and Kane counties logging a dozen or more.
But with more than 70 prosecutions, McHenry continues to outpace others.
“We’ve charged far more overdose deaths than anyone else in the state of Illinois,” said Patrick Kenneally, McHenry County State’s Attorney.
He believes aggressive prosecutions in tandem with drug treatment options are decreasing fatal drug overdoses in the county.
“I strongly believe it is saving lives and avoiding the misery, consequence of having a family member die. I think it’s a no brainer and I think it’s something more prosecutors, more law enforcement have a moral responsibility to.
Leo Beletsky, a professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University, has been studying drug-induced homicide laws for years.
“If you are responding to overdoses with drug induced homicide prosecutions, you’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution,” said Beletsky.
He said data doesn’t support the theory that tough penalties stop people from selling drugs. Instead, he says, they criminalize vulnerable drug users such as family and friends rather than target drug distributors.
Beletsky also claims threats of severe punishment cause fear among the drug-using population and that can result in fewer calls for help — and more deaths.
“We’ve been trying to arrest our way out of it for decades and it’s only gotten worse. We’re in the worst drug crisis of our history,” he said.
Last year Illinois’ good Samaritan law was expanded to provide immunity against drug-induced homicide charges for those who call 911 when a companion overdoses — that would even include family members or friends who may have supplied the drugs. The newly expanded law aimed at saving lives –in the moment.
Lee Polk wants dealers to be held responsible and he said there should at least be investigations. He suggests that a statewide reporting system for all police departments would make it easier for families to provide potential evidence.
“‘I wouldn’t want another to go through this. It’s tough for a parent to lose a child,” he said.
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