Criminal Liability in Fentanyl and Drug Death Cases

Can you be charged with first-degree murder for providing drugs to someone who dies from them?  


Yes. Florida, like most states, provides for harsh penalties if a defendant is convicted of delivering drugs that lead to the death of the person they supplied. The penalty can include a sentence of up to life in prison. 


Under federal law 21 U.S. Code § 841, if a person suffers serious bodily injury or death from the controlled substance provided by a defendant, then conviction requires a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and up to life. 



The Death of Tyler Skaggs 


In 2019, the baseball world was shocked when the Angel’s 27-year-old left-hand pitcher, Tyler Skaggs,  was found dead in a Texas hotel room. An autopsy revealed that Skaggs died from asphyxiation with a combination of oxycodone (Vicodin), alcohol, and fentanyl in his system. The medical examiner concluded that the fentanyl was a significant factor in Skaggs’ death.  


An investigation discovered that the Angel’s public relations staff member, Eric Kay, delivered the drugs, including a fake oxycodone pill containing fentanyl to Skaggs after the pitcher asked Kay to bring him some painkillers. Eric Kay was fired and indicted on federal charges of providing the fentanyl to Skaggs resulting in his death. In October 2022, Eric Kay was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for drug delivery and conspiracy.  


Fentanyl Is a Killer – The Law Blames the Drug Supplier 


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is reported to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The drug was originally produced for use in reducing intense pain in cancer patients and was administered using a skin patch.  


But fentanyl is now a common street drug that is often either mixed with or disguised as heroin or as another drug marketed as a pill. Fentanyl has proven to be so powerful that it has been identified as playing a significant role in the increased rate of overdose deaths in Florida and around the nation.  


As little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl (equal to about 5 grains of salt) can be fatal.  


In 2020 alone, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs  are  

known to have killed 6,150 Floridians.


Fentanyl flooded the illegal drug market because it is 20 times more valuable than heroin and can be manufactured with easily obtained chemicals in a hidden lab here in the U.S., though much of the current market is supplied by Mexican fentanyl producers. When one kilo of heroin could bring a $60,000 return, one kilo of fentanyl’s street value was $1.6 million.  


Learn More > Florida Drug Possession Laws  


Federal Prosecution of Suppliers in Fentanyl-Related Overdose Death Cases 


The U.S. Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies in every state are devoting heightened attention to finding and prosecuting people who supplied drugs to others which led to their death. In April 2022, federal authorities announced the federal criminal indictments of 7 individuals for the distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. In one case, 3 people allegedly died from drugs supplied by one defendant. 


As mentioned earlier, the federal penalty for the offense is a mandatory minimum of 20 years and a maximum sentence of up to life without parole.  


Florida Prosecutions of Suppliers in Fentanyl-Related Overdose Death Cases 


Since 2017, Florida law allows prosecutors to charge someone who sells fentanyl to someone who suffers a fatal overdose with first-degree murder, requiring a penalty of life in prison. Unless the people distributing the fentanyl manufactured it, it is impossible to know how much fentanyl is contained in any dose either in liquid, powder, or pill form.  


Recent amendments to Florida’s drug laws increased the penalties: 


  • An increased mandatory minimum sentence from 3 years to 7 years for trafficking 4-14 grams of fentanyl, and  
  • An increased mandatory minimum sentence from 15 to 20 years for trafficking 14-28 grams of fentanyl. 


Defenses to Fentanyl-Related Overdose or Death Cases in Florida 


Fentanyl-related offenses are at the top of every federal and state law enforcement officer’s list of priorities and are likely to remain there while overdoses continue. Any possession or possession with intent to deliver, or distribution of fentanyl will bring aggressive prosecution and penalties if convicted in Florida. 


If you or a family member in the Tampa – St. Petersburg area are charged with a fentanyl-related crime, especially if anyone was injured or lost their life, you need to contact the most experienced drug/narcotics crime defense lawyers you can find. 


In Tampa, Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law are among the most experienced drug defense, certified criminal defense lawyers. Our comprehensive knowledge of Florida and federal drug laws and criminal procedures enable us to protect you from inappropriately aggressive prosecution, preserve your legal rights, and launch a skillful challenge to the prosecution’s evidence.  


In serious cases in which fentanyl caused serious injury or death to the user, the prosecution cannot convict the defendant unless they prove beyond a reasonable doubt the following elements: 


  • It was the defendant who  
  • knowingly and intentionally supplied 
  • a specific drug (supported by chemical analysis evidence) 
  • to a person who died 
  • as a proximate cause of the drugs supplied by the defendant 
  • and the death was a “reasonable consequence of the defendant’s conduct.”  


Learn More > Florida Fentanyl Possession Attorney  


What is Proximate Cause? 


Proximate cause means that the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the decedent would not have died BUT FOR the drugs supplied by the defendant. 


  • Issues that would be at the heart of the litigation would include the medical examiner’s specific observations, findings, and properly administered lab test results.  
  • The defense would hire its own forensic pathologist to form a possible conclusion challenging the medical examiner’s opinion. 
  • Evidence may be lacking that sufficiently connects the defendant to the drugs causing the decedent’s death. 
  • Witness testimony could be entirely objectionable under hearsay evidentiary rules if no one but the decedent was present for the delivery of the drugs. 


Many other issues could be discovered in the circumstances of each case calling into doubt the prosecution’s theory that the defendant committed a crime. As a defendant facing prosecution for an extremely serious crime, you must find criminal defense lawyers qualified to deliver the strongest and most effective defense possible to prevent a conviction. 


Florida Fentanyl Defense  


If you have been charged with a fentanyl-related death or injury, contact our criminal defense attorneys at Stechschulte Nell Stechschulte Nell for a case review at 813-280-1244. We are on your side.  

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