Editor's note: The following is Part 5, the final instalment of a multi-part series MidlandToday has been running this week about the opioid crisis and the law. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here. To read Part 3, click here. To read Part 4, click here.
Ari Goldkind had one of Ontario’s earlier cases in which a dealer was charged with manslaughter, going back to 2016.
And although his client was acquitted following a jury trial, Goldkind has since followed the evolution of the use of manslaughter charges in drug overdose deaths.
Manslaughter, he points out, occurs when somebody commits an unlawful act that leads to death, although it doesn’t require intent and it doesn’t come with a minimum sentence.
“This is happening because of the scourge of fentanyl, which we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s coming forward yet,” said Goldkind. “From a prosecutorial point of view, why wouldn’t you bring a manslaughter charge if somebody dies? You’ve got a family to account to, you’ve got concerned citizens in Simcoe-Muskoka to account to.
“The strongest manslaughter cases and the most likelihood of conviction is when a prosecutor… can show the person who died from this thought they were buying something other than fentanyl from the person who can be proven to have sold them the drug that killed them," he added.
Barrie police had its first manslaughter conviction related to a fatal drug overdose with a guilty plea in 2019 that resulted in an 18-month sentence handed down last fall.
In April 2017, a 23-year-old Innisfil man died after ingesting what toxicology tests later revealed to be fentanyl and heroin. South Simcoe police subsequently laid manslaughter charges against two men they said sold the man the drugs. One was acquitted and the other was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.
Det. Kai Johnson, with South Simcoe police's criminal investigation branch, said the right elements came together to justify the charge of manslaughter in that case. The toxicology testing determined the presence of the often-deadly fentanyl, there was cellphone and chat data, and the deal was captured on video.
In Bradford and Innisfil which are overseen by South Simcoe police, the use of opiates is a concern and overdoses are “absolutely an issue,” Johnson said.
The use of manslaughter charges in overdose deaths had been used previously, but Johnson suggested it was still in its infancy during the 2017 investigation — he didn’t know of any cases that had reached trial at that point. And that meant additional research and consultations with prosecutors. As a result, the case received a great deal of attention.
The charge of manslaughter "is definitely used more, there’s no doubt about that. But I still think it’s case-specific,” said Johnson. “We investigate these things thoroughly and if that’s the evidence that brings you to it, then that’s where you go. It’s not a charge that’s laid without a lot of consultation (or) a lot of thought.”
As the opioid crisis worsens both locally and abroad, more people accused of having a role in overdose cases are facing the wrath of the law. Here are some of the cases before the courts locally:
* Barrie police were called after a 25-year-old man was taken to the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre on Feb. 23 without vital signs. Police said a group of people had gathered at a home in Innisfil, consuming alcohol and illegal drugs, which they said included fentanyl. They said emergency services hadn’t been called. In addition to manslaughter, a 36-year-old Innisfil man now faces charges of possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking, trafficking in a controlled substance and failure to comply with a probation order. He is next scheduled to appear in Barrie court later this month.
* In March, nearly a year after a 31-year-old man was found without vital signs at a Wasaga Beach residence, police charged another man in his overdose death. On March 24, 2020, Huronia West OPP responded to a call on Mary Street in Wasaga Beach and found the man without vital signs. After the year-long investigation, a 52-year-old Orillia man was charged with manslaughter. The accused returns to court later this month.
* Three people were charged last June in connection with the Jan. 20, 2020, death of a 45-year-old man in Alliston. After a six-month investigation, an OPP team executed a search warrant at a Barrie home and arrested a 38-year-old local woman. She was charged with manslaughter as well as several drug-related offences. A 38-year-old man from Mississauga was also charged with manslaughter and other drug offences, while a 24-year-old Barrie man also faces several drug-related charges. They are scheduled to next appear in court this month.
* An Oro-Medonte Township man was charged with manslaughter and trafficking in methamphetamines at age 19, a year after the Sept. 5, 2019 death of an Orillia man. OPP say the investigation into the death of the 24-year-old from Orillia was drug related. He was discovered outside of his Fittons Road West residence without vital signs and transported to Orillia's Soldiers' Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced deceased. The accused man returns to Orillia court this month.
* A 25-year-old Collingwood man was found unresponsive at a Tenth Street residence on March 17, 2019. It was later determined that he died of an opioid overdose. Three months later, OPP investigators charged two people with causing death by criminal negligence, trafficking in heroin, in addition to manslaughter. A 49-year-old man is scheduled to return to court this month and the co-accused pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
“Anytime a charge is heard in court and a conviction is registered, it sends a very strong message to the community,” said Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon. “The registering of a conviction is bittersweet as it serves to recognize that the investigators did their job and that the Crown attorney was also able to do their job.
“Regrettably, whatever the outcome is in court, and in the case you are referencing, it can never bring back the deceased or replace the sadness that the family is feeling as they continue to deal with the loss of their loved family member," Leon added.