A 21-year-old man pled guilty to second-degree murder this week, according to Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire. The guy was charged with the June 2022 death of a 15-year-old girl who had been given fentanyl.
About 6,000 people died in 2021 in California from fentanyl and other opioids, so the unique prosecution in Placer, northeast of Sacramento, is being followed keenly by law enforcement and legislative circles.
The drug’s horrific death toll has prompted prosecutors to search for methods to bring those responsible to justice. However, other legislators are worried about a return to the harsh drug prosecutions of the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the mass incarceration of drug traffickers and users throughout the United States.
A major factor in fentanyl-related deaths is that many users aren’t aware that the substance they’re ingesting includes the powerful opioid. Mr. Gire’s goal in the California case was to show that Nathaniel Evan Cabacungan was aware that the Percocet pills he gave the child included fentanyl and that he understood “how deadly it was.” According to Mr. Gire, Mr. Cabacungan gave her the pills, stood by while she overdosed, and then sold more narcotics to other people.
Mr. Cabacungan’s public defender did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Cabacungan is set to be sentenced next month; he risks a jail term of 15 years to life.
In the United States today, drug overdoses account for the majority of fatalities. According to the CDC, fentanyl will be the primary synthetic opioid responsible for the 75,000 overdose fatalities expected in 2022.
As the death toll climbs, prosecutors at the federal, state, and municipal levels have filed charges against providers, leading to lengthy jail terms.
Greg Totten, the head of the California District Attorneys Association, has indicated that it may be difficult to prosecute a murder conviction in a fentanyl fatality.
To combat the fentanyl epidemic, the California legislature has been discussing a number of proposals, including one that would make it simpler to seek criminal charges against providers. The bill would mandate that people convicted of a fentanyl offence be informed that further drug sales that result in death might result in even more severe criminal repercussions.
Concerns that the state’s resources would be better spent on drug treatment and prevention have slowed the progress of this and other initiatives.
Mr. Gire said that just three of the approximately 200 fentanyl-related fatalities in his area since 2020 were being investigated as possible murders. When asked if he would pursue murder charges against an addict who fatally overdosed another addict, he indicated he probably wouldn’t.