PAINKILLER LAW BLOG: Phillip Seymour Hoffman Was Brilliant, But Not Murdered

I was just back from a bike ride (sorry – L.A. doesn’t get much snow), and figuring out which beer to buy for a Super Bowl party this past Sunday, when I saw a news flash that the immensely talented actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was dead in New York of a suspected heroin overdose. What a horrible tragedy; he was young, he had three kids, and he was one of the greatest actors in history, dead decades too soon. Respectfully, though, Mr. Hoffman is not a homicide victim, so the Tuesday night arrests in NY of four suspected drug dealers should not result in homicide charges. Drug dealing, maybe, but murder or manslaughter, no.

I spoke on Los Angeles TV news Tuesday night, when the story of the NY arrests broke. A reporter called and took my quote by phone, airing it on the 10:00 pm news as a written paragraph on the TV screen. Then, at 11:00 pm, a cameraman was at my house, ready to film – only the station hadn’t told me he was coming, so it was pretty freaky to get a late-night knock at the door. My dogs were loud and I was, let’s say, rather brusk in asking through the closed door who the visitor was. I heard the poor guy tell his producer over his cellphone, “Meister’s inside and he sounds like he’s going to shoot me.” I looked through the window and saw that I knew the cameraman from previous news segments, so we chatted for a few minutes before he returned to the station (no interview) and I went back to bed.

But here’s what I said about the Hoffman case: Without more evidence, such as spiking a drug or knowingly selling someone synthetic hyper-potent fentanyl disguised as “normal”-dose heroin, the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is not a homicide. The gifted actor died of a drug overdose, not someone else’s intent or malice or criminal recklessness. Although investigating possible homicide angles in a drug overdose case is a thought-provoking idea and an interesting policy discussion for conferences and seminars, it’s not necessarily a legally sound thing to do in the real world. It’s the understandable response by law enforcement to a giant spike in overdose deaths from prescription drugs and from heroin, but it doesn’t mean there’s regularly going to be a legally sufficient connection, a readily discernible cause and effect, justifying holding someone criminally responsible.

Does this mean heroin dealers should be treated with the deference we ordinarily give doctors? No. But it doesn’t mean that doctors should be treated like common criminals, either, when it comes to prescription drugs and the legal analysis conducted in a narcotics or homicide investigation.

When Whitney Houston died of a cocaine-exacerbated heart attack in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub a few years ago, I wrote that if her coke dealers weren’t going to be hunted down and charged with murder, the doctor who wrote her any prescriptions shouldn’t be, either. And now, many months and many overdose deaths later, we have poor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, dead in his Manhattan apartment, with a needle sticking out of his arm, surrounded by a heroin supply. Tragic as his death is, and tragic as it would have been were it the result of prescription drug overdose, it doesn’t and wouldn’t mean someone killed him. Today’s police and prosecutors are ill-advised to try and stretch the law of homicide and causation to the breaking point, and to distort narcotics cases beyond all recognition, in their zeal to “do something” about a problem.

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