District Attorneys Warn: Fentanyl Dealers Could Face Murder Charges

Fentanyl overdoses are surging across the state. Now, district attorneys are trying to make it easier to charge dealers with murder.

This year, California State Senator Melissa Melendez (R- Lake Elsinore) introduced Senate Bill (SB) 350. It would have required judges to issue an advisory to those caught selling or distributing controlled substances that any future fatality as a result of their actions could result in a homicide charge. That bill failed to get out of committee.

Without action from the Legislature, district attorneys in Riverside, Orange, and Kern are taking matters into their own hands. Orange County’s Todd Spitzer and Riverside County’s Mike Hestrin announced last week that they would begin aggressively pursuing homicide charges against fentanyl dealers whose drugs cause a person’s death. As part of that pursuit, they’ll be working with law enforcement officials in the county to ensure dealers are given "advisements'' about the potential of an implied malice murder charge.

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer just made a similar announcement. Her office will be providing a fentanyl advisory to drug dealers in court stating that the substance is deadly and that they can be held criminally liable for an overdose death. Having that on record will make it easier for the D.A. to pursue implied malice murder charges in the future. The sentence for implied malice murder is 15 years.

"We have to show that the accused knew what they were doing was dangerous, they chose to do it anyway, you know, they knew what they were doing and knew that they could be prosecuted for murder,” she told KGET.

Zimmerman believes recent laws that downgraded the penalties for drug distribution are partly responsible for the rise in fentanyl deaths. But the Midwest and East Coast have been dealing with a similar dynamic for years.

With six weeks left in the year, there have already been 153 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Kern. In all of 2020, there were 125 – then a record high. By year’s end, Riverside County is on track to hit 500 to 600 fentanyl-related deaths and San Diego is expect to hit 700.