Alleged Drug Dealers Charged with Murder for Selling Fentanyl-Laced Pills in Southern California

An increasing number of prosecutors in Southern California have begun viewing fentanyl-involved overdose deaths as poisonings. This month, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office charged 3 men with murder for selling opiates laced with fentanyl that caused a 16-year-old girl and an 18-year-old man’s death and 2 non-fatal overdoses.

Fentanyl is a particularly strong prescription drug, often used by illicit drug manufacturers to strengthen the potency or disguise the weakness of heroin and other opioids. Only a small amount can be fatal.

The 3 men will be charged under the Watson murder rule, which is usually used to prosecute fatal drunk driving cases. Prosecutors will allege that the defendants knowingly put others at risk by selling pills laced with fentanyl.

The case is part of an effort by Riverside County law enforcement to curb a growing problem—there has been an 800% increase in fentanyl-involved overdoses over the past 4 years. Nearby counties have similarly been affected as well.

In 2020, the Orange County Crime Lab announced that they found fentanyl in twice the number of drugs tested compared to the previous year.

State Laws May Toughen

Some argue that curbing this surge in fentanyl-involved overdoses requires drafting stricter laws.

Fentanyl is listed as a Schedule II substance, which means it has less potential for abuse than heroin, ecstasy, or even marijuana in the eyes of the law, despite the fact that less than 1000 micrograms of fentanyl is likely to kill someone.

Under current CA law, selling heroin or cocaine results in a harsher penalty than selling fentanyl. “This just does not make any sense,” Democrat Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach told the Press Enterprise. “It has created perverse and deadly incentives, leading to a huge increase in fentanyl coming across our borders.”

Petrie-Norris and Republican Senator Pat Bates have drafted bills that would bump fentanyl up to a Schedule I substance in California legislature.

Another bill proposed by Melissa Melendez, a Republican Senator representing Lake Elsinore, would mandate court-issued warnings to first-time dealers convicted of selling controlled substances that they can be charged with murder for selling a drug that causes an overdose. The bill is named Alexandra’s Law after Alexandra Capelouto, a 20-year-old Temecula woman who overdosed on a pill she bought on Snapchat. The pill she had thought was oxycodone was actually 100% fentanyl—a dosage toxic enough to kill 5 people, according to her father. “Today that drug dealer is still out selling drugs,” he said. “These need to be classified as homicides.”

Other Measures

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has also instituted a new plan of attack called Operation Engage, which is aimed at identifying and targeting the greatest drug threats in communities by connecting the DEA with local law enforcement divisions.

In addition to punitive approaches for dealers and manufacturers, the DEA is also focusing on outreach, prevention, and awareness. “Our children are being duped through social media platforms to buy what they think is a pharmaceutical grade pill and it’s not,” said Jaime Puerta, the father of Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson, a 14-year-old boy who died after overdosing on a fentanyl laced pill.

Opioid addiction is a chronic but treatable disease that may have deadly consequences. If you or a loved is suffering with addiction, please seek treatment.