Proposed crackdown on drug dealers rejected, called ‘unconstitutional’
A proposed Arizona law that would allow drug dealers to be charged with homicide if their product killed someone was shot down by critics who said it was unconstitutional, could have a chilling effect on 911 calls for overdoses and had the potential to subject a typical user to harsh punishment.
The Ashley Dunn Act, named for a young woman who died from a fentanyl overdose in 2021, received impassioned and heart wrenching testimony from both supporters and detractors during a House Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday.
But a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted the bill down, with one lawmaker saying it would cause more problems that it would solve.
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This is the second time that Rep. Quang Nguyen, a Prescott Valley Republican, has proposed the Ashley Dunn Act. Last year, the bill won committee approval but didn’t advance to a vote by the full House of Representatives.
Dunn’s mother, Josephine Dunn, told the committee that her daughter’s dealer received a sentence of only two years in jail for distribution after Ashley’s death.
“How is my daughter’s life worth 24 months?” she asked the committee.
She added that she was confident that the law would have a deterrent effect. If it passed, those who violated the law would have faced between 10 to 29 years in prison.
Pima County Attorney Laura Conover spoke against the proposed bill, saying that there are already laws on the books that prosecutors can use for these types of deaths. Her office has successfully prosecuted several dealers for manslaughter, all of whom she said ended up taking a plea deal and being convicted of either manslaughter or negligent homicide.
There were 2,015 reported opioid overdose deaths in Arizona in 2021 and 3,609 nonfatal opioid overdoses, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Dunn, who lives in Prescott Valley, said she was told that her daughter’s dealer couldn’t be charged with manslaughter because the medical examiner found marijuana in her system along with fentanyl, and it couldn’t be proven that the fentanyl alone killed her, even though she took a lethal dose.
Nguyen’s proposal is much broader than the manslaughter laws currently on the books, and would allow charges against the seller even if the drug was only determined to be a contributing cause in the person’s death.
And that was a bridge too far for Republican Rep. Alex Kolodin, which he said was unconstitutional. Kolodin, a Scottsdale lawyer, said that the Supreme Court has ruled that, for a homicide conviction, a prosecutor must prove that the accused directly caused the victim’s death.
He said that the proposed law was too broad to meet that standard. Both Kolodin and fellow Republican Rep. Cory McGarr of Marana offered to work with Nguyen to amend the bill to fix some of the issues and ensure its constitutionality, but they said that Nguyen refused. Kolodin said he regretted that he had to vote against the bill, because he thought there was a way to make it work.
Danielle Russell, who plans to graduate from Arizona State University with a doctorate this semester, testified against the bill. She told the committee that, around 15 years ago, she was an intravenous drug user who almost lost both of her legs to gangrene.
She said that drugs are often sold through small networks of friends with no big-time dealers involved, adding that she would buy from friends and family — and sometimes from people much younger and in worse situations than hers.
Russell said she believes she wouldn’t be where she is today if she ended up in jail, and said that many of her friends who got caught up in the criminal justice system ended up taking their own lives.
She also balked at the bill’s lack of personal accountability for drug users.
“I take responsibility for my own actions,” Russell said. “I think you do a disservice to people who use drugs when you take away their agency, because at the end of the day, no one ever injected me against my will. I made my own choices.”
She added that someone who is trapped in addiction is probably not worried about the potential legal consequences of their actions.
Both Bill Hughes, chief deputy at the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office and Chief James Edelstein with the Prescott Valley Police, urged the committee to pass the bill.
Edelstein said he was sure the law would have a deterrent effect and would result in fewer drug deaths.
Yavapai County has never successfully convicted a drug dealer for manslaughter, Hughes said; he said the county only recently made its first such charge against a drug dealer and that case hasn’t concluded. In his opinion, it is very difficult to make a manslaughter charge fit a drug death.
Conover said her officer already led one statewide training on how to pursue manslaughter charges for drug dealers like Pima County has done and offered to do more.
However, Conover conceded that her office’s practice of filing manslaughter charges had not “solved the problem of drug homicide,” adding that the issue needed a multifaceted approach.
After the committee voted down the bill, Dunn’s mother yelled “shame on you” to the committee members who voted against it.
Nguyen, who said he was a Dunn family friend, told her that they would try again next year.
A more narrowly focused drug-death proposal, Senate Bill 1029, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 26. That bill would expand the state’s first-degree murder statutes to include deaths by fentanyl, if the drug can be traced back to a specific person.
Convictions through that law could result in life in prison, or even the death penalty.