SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County supervisors Tuesday approved writing a letter of support for state Sen. Tom Umberg's bill that could help prosecutors file second-degree murder charges against fentanyl dealers when a customer dies as a result of ingesting their product.
Umberg, D-Santa Ana, told City News Service that he introduced the legislation because, "The number of deaths and injuries from fentanyl have increased exponentially. This is a measure intended to alert those who may be contemplating selling fentanyl that they may be charged with murder. It's to make sure those offenders are warned that they could be charged with murder if they engage in conduct like that."
Umberg said he also intends to add to the legislation a protection for fentanyl buyers to avoid prosecution if they provide information about the dealer to authorities. That has not been part of past attempts to pass similar legislation.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and Sheriff Don Barnes have advocated for such legislation, which would be modeled after the so-called Watson Waiver admonishment given to drunk drivers -- that if they get caught driving intoxicated again they would face an upgraded charge of second-degree murder instead of manslaughter, which is the norm for fatal crashes involving drunk or high drivers.
Spitzer and Barnes have directed deputies and prosecutors to give their own version of the admonishments anyway after attempts to pass a similar law failed. Spitzer has vowed to go ahead with filing second-degree murder charges to fentanyl dealers given the informal admonishment. When Spitzer's office has asked some judges to issue the admonishment from the bench, they have declined to do so.
Umberg said the admonishment -- even enshrined in state law -- still won't make murder prosecutions of the drug dealers a "slam dunk ... (because) the defendant is still going to say they didn't know" the drug was deadly.
Authorities say drug dealers are turning to fentanyl because they can make it themselves without needing large fields to grow the ingredients for heroin. The problem is many of the dealers making the drugs are far from having the skills of pharmacists and are selling drugs with too much of the narcotic in it, leading to the fatal overdoses.
Orange County Board Chairman Don Wagner said he jumped at the chance to join the chorus of local officials supporting Umberg's legislation.
"This looks like it has some juice behind it and it is a really good thing," Wagner said, adding that Umberg has found a Republican lawmaker to co- sponsor it.
"Hopefully, maybe finally people will wake up because this is extremely dangerous and we should be making sure those causing the deaths of our teens and community members are held accountable," Supervisor Katrina Foley said.
Supevisor Vicente Sarmiento said he hopes that the admonishment could be used as part of the curriculum convicted drug dealers are given in rehabilitation programs.