Some Southern California prosecutors are stepping up charges against those who sell deadly, fentanyl-laced illegal drugs.
In a joint news conference held Tuesday morning, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced that those who manufacture or sell the fentanyl can be charged with murder if someone dies after ingesting or being exposed to it.
As we've previously reported earlier this year, since 2016 there has been an 800% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in Riverside County.
"In 2016, there were 2 fentanyl-related deaths, two. This year, we're on pace to have between 500-600 fentanyl-related deaths," Hestrin said.
The Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner's office told News Channel 3 on Tuesday that there have been 280 fentanyl-related deaths so far this year, however, that could number could continue to grow as there are cases are pending a toxicology report.
The county previously reported that between January and June 2021, there were 43 deaths in the county.
Last year, there were 227 fentanyl-related deaths in Riverside County, according to Hestrin's office.
Across the state, fentanyl deaths have increased 1,513%.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer Announces Drug Dealers Can Now Face Murder Charges if Someone Dies from Fentanyl Poisoning— OCDA Todd Spitzer (@OCDAToddSpitzer) November 9, 2021
Full Press Release: https://t.co/UOuOyAmgN7#toddspitzer pic.twitter.com/qX7zwvctAS
According to Spitzer's office, Orange County has experienced a 1,000% increase over the last five years as a result of an increase in fentanyl being sold under the guise of other less potent drugs.
“These are not overdoses. These are murders,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer. “These dealers are essentially handing a loaded gun to unsuspecting victims knowing that they will probably die and they don’t care. Fentanyl is cheap, it’s easy to get, and it’s killing people who had no idea they were taking it."
The Riverside County DA's Office is currently prosecuting seven fentanyl-related murder cases.
San Bernardino County has charged alleged dealers with murder, as have San Luis Obispo and Contra Costa counties, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported.
During Tuesday's news conference, Spitzer and Hestrin were joined by law enforcement leaders and parents whose children died from fentanyl poisoning.
Watch the full announcement below:
The move comes as drug-related deaths are expected to hit a record of 100,000 this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal prosecutors have charged suspected fentanyl dealers with murder but it’s not as easy to do under state law. Some California lawmakers have proposed bills to treat fentanyl as a more threatening drug and to warn those convicted of dealing that they could face murder charges for similar such actions that result in death, but those proposals didn’t become law.
In Orange County, Public Defender Martin Schwarz said issuing an advisement lacks legal standing unlike a state-mandated process that exists in cases for driving under the influence.
In Los Angeles County, which is home to a quarter of California’s 40 million people, no plans to stiffen charges against suspected dealers have been announced.
In the Riverside County city of Temecula, Matt CapeIouto, whose 20-year-old daughter Alexandra died after taking what she thought was oxycodone, wants to see change. He said he and his wife found their daughter dead in her bedroom after she went online to look for something to ease depression.
“It was ruled an accidental, noncriminal overdose — but that’s outdated,” CapeIouto said. “That’s not correct. My daughter was poisoned.”
Amy Neville, whose 14-year-old son Alexander died after taking what he thought was Oxycontin, said she doesn’t think the admonishment is enough, but it’s a start.
“Fentanyl will still be here, drug dealers will still be selling,” she said. “When one is arrested, there’s always another one to take their place. But in the end, with the admonishment, at least that dealer is on the hook for future drug dealing.”