Some D.A.s are fighting fentanyl with murder charges. Why San Francisco will join them

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County by region successful California, arsenic fentanyl overdoses escalate, section prosecutors are turning to a caller ineligible strategy to stem nan spiraling decease toll: charging supplier dealers pinch murder.

In July, Placer County reached a landmark plea woody that sent a man to situation for 15 years-to-life on charges of second-degree execution aft he provided a Roseville teen pinch a fentanyl-contaminated pill that proved lethal.

A period later, a Riverside County assemblage issued a first-of-its-kind verdict against different man who supplied a lethal dose of a fentanyl-laced pill to a 26-year-old woman. He besides was recovered blameworthy of second-degree execution and sentenced to astatine slightest 15 years successful prison.

District attorneys successful Sacramento, Fresno, San Joaquin, San Bernardino and San Diego counties are utilizing akin blueprints: going aft alleged fentanyl dealers for homicide alternatively than supplier sales, successful hopes that nan threat of harsher criminal penalties will easiness an opioid situation that killed much than 7,300 Californians successful 2022.

Many of nan counties adopting nan fierce ineligible strategy are successful “purple” aliases “red” areas of California, wherever much blimpish rule enforcement leaders person agelong embraced a tough-on-crime philosophy. Now, San Francisco metropolis leaders — celebrated for their ultraliberal authorities — are preparing to travel suit.

Mayor London Breed, constabulary officials and Dist. Atty. Brooke Jenkins are successful nan last stages of forming a rule enforcement task force charged pinch investigating opioid deaths and illicit supplier dealing successful nan metropolis arsenic imaginable homicide cases. The effort is group to motorboat this spring.

In an October connection announcing nan initiative, Breed said group trading nan synthetic opioid are “on announcement that pushing this supplier could lead to homicide charges.” Jenkins said nan effort would make it easier to clasp dealers “accountable for nan existent dangerousness of their conduct.”

It’s a singular displacement successful rhetoric and strategy for a metropolis regularly lambasted by right-wing pundits arsenic an anything-goes sanctuary for supplier dealers and users. The caller attack marks a decided front to mounting unit from residents and business leaders for nan metropolis to rein successful an illicit supplier civilization that has fed nan ranks of homelessness and transformed immoderate downtown neighborhoods into squalid open-air supplier markets wherever group are utilizing — and dying — successful nan streets.

The move toward tougher penalties for dealers comes aft different high-profile nationalist initiatives person grounded to move nan tide successful San Francisco’s supplier deaths. In precocious 2021, Breed declared a state of emergency successful nan Tenderloin area that successful mentation made it easier to grow and link users pinch curen and detox services.

In May of past year, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed nan California National Guard and California Highway Patrol to San Francisco to assistance pinch investigations and prosecution of supplier trafficking networks supplying nan Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. As of precocious January, nan cognition had resulted successful 460 arrests and nan confiscation of 18,000 grams of fentanyl and 5,000 grams of methamphetamine, according to nan governor’s office.

Breed besides is sponsoring a arguable March ballot measurement to require supplier screening for definite group receiving use benefits, which she says will push much group into treatment.

Despite nan attention, accidental overdose deaths person accrued complete nan past year, surging to a record precocious of 806 successful 2023. Most of those cases — astatine slightest 653 — progressive fentanyl, according to preliminary information from nan San Francisco main aesculapian examiner’s office.

“The logic why I’ve fixed clear guidance to beryllium overmuch much fierce successful tackling this problem has a batch to do pinch nan nonaccomplishment of life, and besides nan unit surrounding nan supplier market,” said Breed, who has shared her communicative of losing a sister to a supplier overdose astir 20 years ago.

“Because of nan number of overdoses, and because it’s straight linked to nan drugs, location needs to beryllium a nexus to nan group who are trading this poison that is really sidesplitting people,” she said.

That doesn’t mean each overdose lawsuit will beryllium prosecuted arsenic a murder. Instead, investigators will return a “very targeted approach,” Jenkins said. Investigators will activity intimately pinch nan aesculapian examiner’s agency and constabulary to respond quickly to reported deaths and cod grounds that could necktie nan overdose to a circumstantial supplier sale.

Counties starring nan complaint connected nan caller attack person recovered specified cases tricky to prosecute. Prosecutors person to person a assemblage that nan personification who provided nan supplier bears work for nan overdose, and knew nan waste could consequence successful death. District attorneys are treading cautiously and truthful acold person revenge only a fistful of cases — moreover arsenic immoderate of these counties grounds hundreds of overdose deaths each year.

Riverside County has been among nan astir fierce successful employing nan tactic, having revenge 34 cases against alleged dealers. Still, that’s a fraction of nan 572 opioid overdose deaths nan region recorded successful 2022, according to California Department of Public Health data. Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin said his agency targets cases wherever attorneys judge they tin show that a trader is intelligibly alert of nan deadly risks associated pinch fentanyl and chose to “disregard that danger” successful pursuit of profit.

By comparison, Placer County has revenge 5 fentanyl-related homicide cases; Sacramento and San Bernardino, four; San Diego, eight; and Fresno, one.

“This should beryllium utilized sparingly, and only successful those instances wherever it’s warranted,” said Placer County Dist. Atty. Morgan Gire. “But erstwhile it’s warranted, we will do it.”

The maneuver has not gained overmuch traction successful Los Angeles County, wherever Dist. Atty. George Gascón has focused resources connected addiction prevention efforts and targeting high-level manufacturers and traffickers for prosecution. But immoderate of nan candidates moving against him successful nan March superior look to support nan approach.

Such cases hinge connected time-consuming investigations, territory attorneys employing nan strategy said. Investigators excavation done cellphone records, matter messages, societal media accounts and different communications successful hunt of grounds that a trader knew nan merchandise was dangerous.

Gire said his agency reviews a defendant’s background, income history and communications pinch customers. How did they get nan fentanyl? Have they been astir group who died from an overdose? Have they experimented pinch nan supplier aliases overdosed themselves?

“To beryllium personification knows something, we person to beryllium what they’re thinking. We person to get wrong their head,” Gire said. “And nan champion measurement for america to do that is done things they opportunity and things they do.”

That exemplary could beryllium difficult to replicate successful San Francisco.

Many of nan region prosecutors interviewed said they started filing execution charges aft noticing an uptick successful nan number of seemingly patient young group dying of overdoses successful their community, usually aft purchasing a supplier online. Often, nan cases impact teens experimenting pinch pills — who mightiness not cognize nan supplier they bought was laced pinch fentanyl — alternatively than hard-core addicts.

San Francisco’s crisis, successful comparison, is astir visible and visceral wrong nan bum population, whose ranks see longtime addicts who get narcotics from aggregate sources.

“Many of nan deaths, peculiarly connected nan street, are not going to lend themselves to america being capable to way down who nan seller was,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins’ squad is seeking training from San Diego County, which shares immoderate of San Francisco’s struggles pinch homeless supplier deaths. The region has charged 8 defendants pinch homicide successful fentanyl-related deaths since 2017, said San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan.

Opponents to San Francisco’s task unit are speedy to constituent retired nan deficiency of empirical information showing that prosecuting thoroughfare dealers for homicide and sending them to situation for longer position is proving an effective deterrent. Several of nan prosecutors interviewed by The Times said they could constituent to only anecdotal grounds that nan strategy is intimidating would-be dealers.

Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry astatine Stanford who studies addiction, was skeptical that dangling execution charges complete low-level dealers would origin a disruption successful nan supplier proviso chain.

“They’re very low-skilled labor. You tin walk your half a million, cardinal dollars per, to put them successful a authorities situation system, but they’ll beryllium replaced almost instantly,” Humphreys said. “It’s not retired of sympathy that I opportunity we can’t conscionable continually apprehension group connected nan corner. ... It’s conscionable futile.”

Instead, Humphreys advocates for much wide readiness of nan overdose-reversing nasal spray known arsenic Narcan and for security companies to screen substantive intelligence wellness and addiction treatment.

Several critics of nan caller effort opportunity nan metropolis won’t make existent headway until its leaders woody pinch nan guidelines causes of addiction, including a shortage of affordable lodging and effective curen options and a faltering societal information net.

“A purely punitive approach, it conscionable doesn’t work. If it would person worked, it would person worked complete nan past 100 years,” said San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose territory includes nan Mission, different vicinity struggling pinch unfastened supplier use.

And immoderate speculated, cynically, that nan task unit is simply a calculated effort to build goodwill among voters during an predetermination twelvemonth successful which some Breed and Jenkins are up for reelection. Breed faces a peculiarly tough reelection bid against astatine slightest 3 different contenders.

Breed has held patient against nan criticism. She agrees that encouraging much group to activity curen is simply a laudable goal. But, she said, metropolis leaders besides person to beryllium “willing to make nan difficult decisions to make change” and clasp group accountable.

“Selling poison should not beryllium protected,” Breed said. “I americium disappointment pinch nan disapproval for taking excessively difficult of a stance and saying that group person nary different way, aliases nary different option. I don’t work together pinch that.”

Jenkins besides insists nan inaugural isn’t astir authorities aliases criminalizing supplier users successful nan throes of addiction.

“I deliberation that is an simple statement that’s easy for them to make,” she said. “They aren’t responsible for redeeming nan lives of nan group that are dying connected their streets. I am.”

Source latimes