Possible manslaughter charge for alleged drug dealers would hinge on knowledge drugs were tainted: lawyers

A string of overdoses and two deaths in Saskatoon are raising the possibility of a manslaughter charge for the three people police alleged sold the deadly drugs.

2 men from Calgary, 1 from Saskatoon face trafficking charges after string of overdoses leave 2 dead

Police responding to an overdose call in the 3000 block of Arlington Avenue Saturday morning. (Dan Zakreski/CBC News)

A string of overdoses and two deaths in Saskatoon are raising the possibility of a manslaughter charge for the three people police allege sold the deadly drugs. 

Jagmanjot Grewal, Shervin Beeharry and Azam Kabani all face trafficking and weapons charges in relation to what police say was the sale of a lethal mixture of cocaine and fentanyl. They were arrested and charged over the weekend.

Beeharry, 19, has an address in Saskatoon while Grewal, 21, and Kabani, 19, both have Calgary addresses, according to court records.

On Saturday, police responded to a total of six calls from three different locations around the city about people suffering from overdoses. A 48-year-old woman and a man died from overdoses. Another woman who was found unresponsive is receiving medical attention.  

Police released the street name — Lil Joe or Joe Bro — and the phone number of the alleged drug dealer.

Police wouldn't confirm whether or not any of the three arrested were Lil Joe or Joe Bro, but they did say they believe they have the right people in custody.

Manslaughter a possibility: lawyers

Police are investigating the overdose deaths, which they say happened because people used cocaine laced with what is suspected to be fentanyl. 

That investigation could result in a homicide charge — likely manslaughter — but only if Crown prosecutors can prove the alleged dealers knew the drug they were selling was lethal, lawyers say.

"There is certainly case law that would support criminal negligence causing death and manslaughter in certain circumstances," said Brian Pfefferle, who practises criminal law in Saskatoon. 

'The Crown would need to prove that the death was caused by the substance and the person trafficking the substance knew that substance could cause significant bodily harm,' in order to support a manslaughter charge, says Saskatoon lawyer Brian Pfefferle. (Don Somers/CBC)

Pfefferle said those circumstances would have to be clear and the burden of proof is always on the Crown. 

"The Crown would need to prove that the death was caused by the substance and the person trafficking the substance knew that substance could cause significant bodily harm," he said.

Kent Roach, a law professor from the University of Toronto, says Canada's manslaughter laws are broad enough to allow this kind of charge.

"It seems to me plausible that someone who is dealing drugs that they know have an opiate like fentanyl in [them] could be charged with manslaughter if someone died as a result," Roach said.

Precedent for manslaughter charge

There is also precedent for this kind of charge. 

A 33-year-old Edmonton man was charged with manslaughter after a 39-year-old man from Sherwood Park was discovered dead in his vehicle in 2017. 

In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the conviction of Marc Creighton, who was charged with manslaughter after he injected his friend with cocaine on Oct. 27, 1989.

Police say cocaine was likely laced with fentanyl and resulted in two overdose deaths in Saskatoon over the weekend. (CBC)

Roach said even if the buyers knew what they were buying — in this case, cocaine laced with sometimes potentially deadly fentanyl, according to police — the charge could still stand. 

"I don't think that claims that the victim consented would necessarily be a barrier to the prosecution. It would certainly present another possible issue for the defence to argue, but I don't think that's a definitive barrier to the prosecution."

But Pfefferle said many of the cases he's seen where a dealer is charged with someone's death end up being pleaded down — meaning the accused pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. 

The three men charged this weekend are due back in court for their bail hearing Wednesday.