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The Controversy Over Charging Drug Dealers With Murder After Overdoses


Florida has just joined a number of states that charge drug dealers with murder if their customers overdose on drugs containing the synthetic opioid fentanyl. It's touched off a debate about whether these laws are used to prosecute the right people and whether they endanger the drug users they're designed to protect. Peter Haden of member station WLRN reports.

PETER HADEN, BYLINE: Twenty-two-year-old Ty Hernandez was mending a broken heart when he felt a cold coming on. His mom, Peggy, did the mom thing. You've got to rest and drink fluids, she said. The next morning...

PEGGY HERNANDEZ: I left a note on the counter with some chicken noodle soup and said, I hope you feel better; call me if you need anything. And I went to work.

HADEN: Ty had recently broken up with his girlfriend in Maine and moved back in with his folks. Their house sits on a lake in a leafy subdivision in Wellington, Fla. Ty's mom was glad to have him back.

HERNANDEZ: We got home at 5:30, and I noticed that nothing was messed with on the counter.

HADEN: So she went upstairs to check on him.

HERNANDEZ: I opened the door, and I found him on his bed dead - cold and dead.

HADEN: Under Ty's body - a charred scrap of aluminum foil, a lighter and the hollow tube from a ballpoint pen - tools for smoking heroin. Ty had died of an overdose but not heroin.

HERNANDEZ: It was full-strength, 100 percent fentanyl.

HADEN: Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that killed Prince, Ty Hernandez and thousands of other Americans last year. It's over 50 times more potent than morphine. The deadly nature of the drug prompted state lawmakers to take action this year. Now Florida law allows people who distribute a fatal dose of fentanyl to be charged with drug-induced homicide. And Florida law enforcement is getting the word out to drug dealers.


PEYTON GRINNELL: Enjoy trying to sleep tonight wondering if tonight's the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges.

HADEN: Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell recently put out a public service announcement on YouTube. He stands staring into the camera, flanked on either side by four motionless deputies in ski masks.


GRINNELL: If our agents can show the nexus between you, the pusher of poison, and the person that overdoses and dies, we will charge you with murder. We are coming for you. Run.

HADEN: Drug-induced homicide laws are not new. More than 20 states have them. Most were put on the books decades ago during the height of the war on drugs. But prosecutors around the country are now dusting them off to combat the raging opioid epidemic. The charges are often hard to prove, but in Ty Hernandez's death, the evidence was jumping out at them.

HERNANDEZ: Ty's phone was just ringing off the hook. This name kept popping up - Slim, Slim, Slim - texting, dude, where's my money? Dude, where's my money?

HADEN: That phone and other evidence led a federal jury to convict Slim, a 24-year-old drug dealer named Christopher Massena, of drug-induced homicide for selling Ty Hernandez the dose of pure fentanyl that took his life. Massena was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The expanded Florida statute now gives state prosecutors the same heavy hammer. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg says they need it.

DAVE ARONBERG: The person who is spreading this poison needs to be held accountable, and that will mean handcuffs and long prison sentences.

HADEN: But a report by the Drug Policy Alliance says there is no evidence that the laws reduce overdoses or drug use. Instead, the report says the laws often ensnare friends or family members who were just sharing their drugs, not professional dealers. Critics also say the harsh statutes undermine Good Samaritan laws meant to encourage people to call 911 when someone is overdosing.

ART WAY: We see situations where people leave the home and call 911 from a pay phone or from another home because they're concerned about prosecution.

HADEN: Art Way is director of criminal justice reform for the Drug Policy Alliance.

WAY: And when you add murder to that mix, you're only increasing that dynamic in driving things further and further underground.

HADEN: For moms like Peggy Hernandez, punishing drug dealers and getting them off the street remains the No. 1 priority. She lost her son to fentanyl, but another mom lost her son to prison.

HERNANDEZ: I feel for her. I hurt for her. But unlike me, she still can hug her son if she chooses to. She can still go see her son if she chooses to. She can call and talk to him on the phone if she chooses to. I don't have that.

HADEN: Peggy hopes state officials will name the drug-induced homicide statute Ty's Law after her son.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden in Wellington, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.

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