Criminal Law

Decision convicting drug dealer of manslaughter 'troubling'

A recent Manitoba Court of Appeal decision that found a drug dealer guilty of manslaughter, even though it was the recipient’s choice to take the drug, raises the question of whether the law is right, Toronto criminal lawyer Jill Presser tells Lawyers Weekly.

As the article notes, in R. v. Haas 2016 MBCA 42, the Manitoba high court upheld a trial judge’s guilty verdict, affirming that a victim’s free-will ingestion of at least 10 morphine pills did not break the chain of causation required for a manslaughter conviction.

The case centred around a 47-year-old man who admitted to providing a 20-year-old woman with morphine pills. The woman was later treated in hospital for a morphine overdose. After returning home, she fell into “dire straits” and was rushed back to hospital, where she died some 32 hours after taking the pills, the article reports. Toxicology evidence accepted by the trial judge indicated that the woman had ingested 16 or more morphine pills.

The Manitoba appeal court found the trial judge was correct in his manslaughter analysis, with Justice Barbara Hamilton writing: “It is sufficient if the general nature of the intervening act and the risk of non-trivial harm are reasonably forseeable at the time that the accused person commits the underlying unlawful act.”

The decision adds: “The question is whether the intervening act and the resultant harm flowed reasonably from the conduct of the accused person.”

However, Presser, who has published articles on causation, tells Lawyers Weekly, “The decision is right on the law, but it raises the question of whether the law is right.

“Nobody likes a drug trafficker,” she adds, “but this decision rankles because the deceased decided to take the pills and controlled the intake of pills. Is it meaningful to hold Haas responsible? Is he a killer?”

Furthermore, she adds: “The decision is troubling because criminal responsibility should have agency and responsibility on behalf of the actor. Punishing harm without fault is to deny the opportunity for the criminal law to be a deterrent or have educational value.”

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