A Senate bill that strengthens drug distribution penalties passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 7-3 Monday. A similar bill has already gained traction in House committees.
The bill (SB 190) would give drug dealers stiffer punishments if they’re caught selling a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of an abuse treatment center. The proposal also broadens a prosecutor’s ability to enhance penalties against a drug dealer if the sale of a narcotic leads to the fatal overdose of a consumer.
Under current Florida law, a person can get a first-degree murder charge if they unlawfully distribute a controlled substance that is found to be the proximate cause of someone’s death. That standard makes it difficult for a prosecutor to prove which substance is the proximate cause if several are found in a person’s system, according to a staff report on SB 190.
The bill would change the standard to a “sufficient to cause death,” meaning if a victim has a lethal level of a controlled substance in their system, their distributor could be found guilty of murder regardless of what other substances are present. The bill also adds methamphetamines to the list of drugs that could land someone a murder charge.
Sen. Jason Brodeur, the bill’s sponsor, said during the committee meeting the changes to the statute follow recommendations from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Statewide Task Force on Opioid Abuse. The Republican legislator said the bill would be one tool to help curtail the opioid epidemic in Florida. In 2020, officials recorded 1,273 methamphetamine overdose deaths in the state.
“Gone are the days where predators are preying on those most vulnerable when they are in recovery,” he said.
Nancy Daniels, legislative council for the Florida Public Defenders Association, spoke against the bill during public comment. She said she thinks the bill could be unconstitutional because the “sufficient to cause death” standard is vague and does not have a precedent of use. She is also concerned the bill could keep people from seeking medical attention for those going through an overdose.
“If they know there is a possible death penalty prosecution, we think it is going to chill people coming forward with overdoses,” she said.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, who voted against the bill, said he does want harsher penalties for those who make money off of people suffering from addiction. But he is concerned the change could lessen judicial discretion in sentencing.
“I dislike drug traffickers. I think the death penalty is quite a reach for selling drugs to someone in addiction,” he said.
He said he could eventually support the bill, but wants to discuss it further with Brodeur and make sure other methods, like boosting counseling and health resources for those addicted, are also used to fight opioid deaths.
After Rouson’s comments, Brodeur said he would be willing to meet with him to further discuss the bill and agreed that harsher penalties for drug dealers aren’t enough to stop the epidemic.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of it,” he said.