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Victims’ families push back on ‘death by distribution’ crime for drug dealers

April 13th, 2019

— A bill to increase penalties for drug dealers whose product kills a user drew criticism Tuesday from people who’ve lost family to drugs.

They’re worried that, if a “death by distribution” crime is added to state law, people won’t be as likely to call 911 when someone overdoses.

They said more people would die, and they begged for tighter wording in the bill to keep prosecutors from targeting friends and fellow addicts who so often sell to the end user.

“You guys, please just consider the wording of this,” said Julie Cummins, who lost her son, Boone, in 2017. “It’s just got to be right.”

Senate Bill 375 was up for discussion only Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary committee, and there was a line out the door for people interested in the bill. It will be back before the same committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday and may be voted on then, Chairman Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, said.

opioids, prescription drugs

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said he planned to work with bill sponsors on the language before then. Advocates worried that the change would eclipse North Carolina’s Good Samaritan law, which protects people who call for help after an overdose from prosecution.

“Let’s all support each other and try to make sure that we don’t pass laws that directly oppose the ones that were already passed,” said Elly Cummins, Boone’s sister.

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, who filed the bill, said the intent is to target professional dealers who “prey on” addicts. He said there’s room in the legislation for district attorneys to use their discretion.

New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said prosecutors are hamstrung now by having to prove malice to make a murder charge stick. The bill would create a new charge of “death by distribution,” allowing longer sentences without having to prove malice.

A first offense would be punishable by 3.5 to 7.5 years in prison. Those with drug trafficking records would face eight to 17 years, sponsors said. The more common sentence now for dealers whose customers die is 10 to 20 months, said Brown.

David said that, in 52 cases, prosecutors have been able to indict only in three. All three turned into involuntary manslaughter cases punished by six months to two years in prison, he said.

“That’s not enough,” David said.

Tessie Castillo of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition said that, in other states with death by distribution laws, most of the people prosecuted are friends and family of the victims. It’s difficult to follow drugs up the chain and charge high-level dealers, she said.

“We all want to stop the deaths,” she said. “This particular bill is not a solution.”

Mary Stansell, a former prosecutor now with the Wake County Public Defender’s Office, also spoke against the bill. She disagreed with David’s assessments of current law and the bill.

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