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Home / News / Politics / Bill stiffening penalties for fentanyl dealers stalls in committee

Bill stiffening penalties for fentanyl dealers stalls in committee

by City News Service
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A bipartisan bill sponsored by Southland state senators aimed at cracking down on fentanyl dealers whose customers die stalled in a state Senate committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 44, also known as Alexandra’s Law, was sponsored by state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, and state Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Redlands, and has also drawn the support of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins. The denial in the public safety committee came as Orange County Supervisors and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer voiced support for it at Tuesday’s board meeting.

The bill seeks to provide fentanyl dealers with a warning that if they get caught dealing again and one of their customers dies they could face an upgrade in punishment from manslaughter to second-degree murder. It has been compared to the so-called Watson Advisement given to drunk drivers.

Matt Capelouto, the father of Alexandra Capelouto, who the bill was named after, slammed the lawmakers at a news conference in Sacramento. His 20-year-old daughter died in December 2019 when she thought she was buying the prescription painkiller Percocet, but the drug turned out to be fentanyl-laced Oxycodone and she died while home in Temecula on a break from college. The dealer, Brandon Michael McDowell, has been sentenced to nine years in federal prison.

“I’m appalled to be standing here once again expressing disagreement with a decision of the public safety committee (that) refuses, absolutely refuses, to do anything about the epidemic ripping our communities apart,” Matt Capelouto said. “The first time I was stunned. The second time I was angry.”

Capelouto, who has led a national campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl, said he and other advocates “went back to work on it,” and this time around earned the support of 41 co-sponsors.

“Over half the senate endorsed this measure,” Capelouto said. “We bent, we adjusted, to clear all of the hurdles and concerns this committee could have had with it.”

But the lawmakers “once again stopped a bill that would absolutely save the lives of Californians and protect our most vulnerable,” he said.

“They quibble about words and phrases and worry about how fair or unfair it might be to drug dealers. And while they do so people keep dying,” Capelouto added. “I am not here because I want revenge. My daughter was killed almost four years ago by a drug dealer and he’s spending nine years in prison for that crime.”

Capelouto said he would keep fighting for the legislation to protect others.

“This is a disappointment, but it is not the end,” Umberg said. “This doesn’t mean the fight is over. My heart breaks for you. … At this point, I’m somewhat stunned. I’m obviously disappointed, but I’m committed to working on this issue.”

Opponents of the law have argued that it represented an effort to incarcerate the state’s way out of a problem, repeating failed policies of the past, without addressing root causes fueling the drug trade. The California Public Defenders Association was among those opposing the measure, calling a reversal of the state’s efforts to move away from “draconian punishments” for people “who never intended to kill another human being.”

Meanwhile, Orange County supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to support a legislative agenda that included increased penalties for dealing fentanyl. Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento was the dissenting vote, echoing the type of opposition heard in Sacramento.

Sarmiento said he opposed Senate Bill 62 and Assembly Bills 701 and 1058. He supported an anti-fentanyl abuse task force as proposed in Senate Bill 19.

“Nobody disputes the tragedy this causes,” Sarmiento said. “But this movie’s already been played. We’ve already tried to do this. … I do think that simply incarcerating our way out of this problem is not the solution. We tried that with crack, with cocaine, with crystal meth. Something else will be on the horizon, something else will come. There are root causes here. There are reasons people are turning to narcotics.”

Orange County Board Chairman Don Wagner, a former assemblyman, said state lawmakers have been scaling back tougher penalties on crime for years.

“To my mind, the same thing we’ve been doing for 20 years is turning a blind eye to attempting to rehab our way out, slapping folks on the wrist and seeing the problems increase,” Wagner said. “That’s why it’s time to do something different. … Give us some penalties. Let’s put some teeth in the law.”

Supervisor Andrew Do, a former prosecutor, agreed with Wagner.

“We keep calling it symbolic,” Do said of backing legislation unlikely to get approved. “Perhaps the most appropriate word is sanguine. We know we will not meet with success, but it doesn’t mean it’s symbolic. We are the voice of 3.2 million people. This is the venue we can express the position of the people of the county of Orange. … We know the direction we’ve been in the last 20 years has not been productive. We’ve seen a tremendous rise in crime. We’ve seen people don’t fear the police or being arrested or incarcerated because they’ll be let out in hours.”

Supervisor Katrina Foley said lawmakers “need to focus on prevention and helping people overcome whatever the underlying root causes (that lead them to) experiment with drugs. … But I see the penalties on a parallel track.”

Spitzer said that while he wants more tools to crack down on drug dealers, he noted that his office has also supported the collaborative court system that seeks to help rehabilitate drug addicts.

“We’re also on the other side to try to rehabilitate people and get them on the right track, and this board is fully invested in that,” Spitzer said.

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