RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CNS) -- Riverside County's district attorney and other officials are calling for the passage of state legislation that cracks down on dealers of fentanyl and other drugs when one of their customers dies of an overdose or poisoning.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin on Tuesday joined the father of a college student who died from fentanyl poisoning, along with a federal law enforcement official, in calling on the state Legislature to pass laws that would mandate warnings to drug suppliers that they could face murder charges if what they sell kills someone.
"We want to tell our lawmakers, the governor -- help us," Hestrin said. "Help the people of our state. Pass the laws that give us the tools to protect our citizens. It's as simple as that."
Hestrin, DrugInducedHomicide.com founder Matt Capelouto of Temecula and Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Bill Bodner held a news briefing at the D.A.'s headquarters in downtown Riverside to appeal to the Legislature to give consideration to Senate Bill 44, authored by Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Anaheim, and SB 13, authored by Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Beaumont, which are nearly identical.
The proposals would mandate advisements to drug dealers, stating they understand upon conviction of dealing controlled substances that they could be prosecuted for second-degree murder if the products they distribute in the future cause a person's death.
The advisement would be on par with Watson warnings that individuals convicted of driving under the influence must sign upon conviction of a DUI.
"No laws are in place to ensure dealers will be held accountable. They don't exist (in California)," Capelouto said. "(SB 13 and SB 44) will save lives in our state and in our communities."
SB 13 is known as "Alexandra's Law," in memory of Capelouto's daughter. It and SB 44 are under review by the Senate Committee on Public Safety.
"The committee has an opportunity to save lives," Capelouto said. "They can lead the way and take a step toward protecting thousands of Californians. If not, more will die, with zero accountability from the person who killed them. That's not acceptable to me, and it shouldn't be acceptable to any Californian who cares about the safety of our community."
Bodner said the DEA has investigated cases "where a single drug dealer poisoned or killed multiple victims in the span of a couple of days."
"The DEA will continue to work with local law enforcement agencies to ensure those lost to fentanyl have a voice," he said.
The bills now before the Legislature bear strong similarities to proposals introduced at least twice by former Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, in 2021 and 2022. Her legislation was also dubbed "Alexandra's Law" and had the support of multiple district attorneys statewide.
The proposals never reached the Senate floor due to lack of backing from Democratic lawmakers, who have super-majorities in the Assembly and Senate.
"There's strong opposition in the California Legislature to any law that punishes offenders," Hestrin said. "And that's the world we're living in here in California. There's a strong 'de-carceration' effort and an ideology floating around in Sacramento that says punishing offenders who hurt our citizens is wrong, or that it's somehow harmful to society. And it's nonsense, and that's what we're battling."
The D.A.'s office has filed second-degree murder complaints in 20 fentanyl poisoning cases going back to February 2021, according to Hestrin. The filings would be less cumbersome in the future with a state law on the books mandating Watson-like advisements, he said.
Hestrin also pointed out that newly aggregated data indicate almost 500 people in Riverside County died from fentanyl poisoning in 2022. That compares to just under 400 in 2021, a 200-fold increase from 2016, when only two such fatalities were documented.
On Monday, the man who sold the fentanyl-laced pills that killed Capelouto's 20-year-old daughter in December 2019, 24-year-old Brandon Michael McDowell of Riverside, was sentenced to nine years in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.
"The drug dealer responsible for deceiving my daughter to death by selling her a counterfeit Oxycodone pill faced 20 years behind bars," Capelouto said. "U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal believed the defendant was not fully aware of the dangers of the drug he was selling. The evidence clearly showed otherwise. We were disappointed in the sentence, but still grateful."
"Most families who have lost or will lose loved ones to drug-induced homicide receive zero justice," he said. "The reality is, the state does not have the proper laws in place to stop drug dealers from peddling fentanyl to our families, friends and neighbors. We are a family who lost a daughter, and now there's a sorrow that we will endure for the rest of our lives. We are inspired to continue to fight for justice, accountability and safety for all Californians and Americans."
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is manufactured in overseas labs, and according to the DEA, it's smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border by cartels. It's 80-100 times more potent than morphine and can be mixed into any number of street narcotics and prescription drugs, without a user knowing what he or she is consuming. Ingestion of only two milligrams can be fatal.
In her legislation, Bogh included data from the state showing that, in 2021, 5,722 of the 10,416 Californians who died from a drug overdose died from fentanyl poisoning.