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Virginia Democrats vote down bill that would serve harsher penalties to drug dealers


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A Virginia Senate committee narrowly defeated legislation Wednesday that would expand the circumstances in which a drug dealer could be charged with felony homicide in connection with a user's death.

The bill, a priority of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and fellow Republicans, was pitched as a deterrent to criminals that would save lives amid the rising tide of overdose deaths, particularly those attributable to fentanyl. However, the Democrats on the committee who voted it down voiced skepticism that stiffer penalties, rather than an approach focused on substance abuse treatment, would effectively address the root causes of the issue.

"I think the policy difference that we’re encountering in committee here is, what’s the right way to attack this? And do we attack it the way we attacked things in the ’90s?" said Senate Democratic Leader Scott Surovell, who heads the committee.

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The bill essentially sought to overrule a 2014 Court of Appeals decision that put time and place limits on how far removed a dealer could be from a user's death to still be charged with felony homicide, bill sponsor Sen. Ryan McDougle said in an interview.

McDougle, the Senate's Republican leader, and others who testified in support of his bill told the committee that, currently, if a dealer sold drugs to an individual, left the scene and the purchaser died afterward, the dealer could not be charged with felony murder, which carries a 5- to 40-year sentence. However, if a person shared drugs with friends at a party, and someone died during the party, the person who provided the drugs could face that charge.

"We were hoping that this bill would pass to say that regardless of how far away you get, or how long it was, if your drugs are the poison that killed somebody, you should be held accountable," said Nate Green, the commonwealth’s attorney for Williamsburg and James City County, who advocated for the measure.

Lawmakers heard testimony from around 10 people who said they had lost a child or another loved one to a drug overdose. Some of the speakers held photos of their relatives and pleaded with lawmakers to support the bill.

Jennifer Johnson, of suburban Richmond, described the horror of finding the lifeless bodies of her son and his girlfriend in August 2020. In an interview, Johnson said her 19-year-old son PJ died after attending an open mic night and taking a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl.

Johnson found text messages on her son's phone that showed an exchange with the person she believes provided the pill. No charges have been brought in connection with the deaths, though it is her understanding there is still an open investigation, she said.

"I'm not really here because it’s going to make a difference in our situation. But, I mean, so many people are continuing to die," Johnson said.

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Opponents of the bill argued that prosecutors have drug distribution charges that can be used to punish bad actors and carry similarly tough penalties.

Shawn Weneta, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Virginia, warned the committee that the measure could have a chilling effect on reporting or seeking help on behalf of people in an overdose because of the fear of punishment.

"Unfortunately, what this is going to do is lead to situations where people are not going to report. They're going to abandon them," he said.

Surovell, who expressed sympathy for the victims' families, said he had "communicated" to Youngkin that a better place to find common ground with the General Assembly's Democratic majority would be focusing more resources "to catch the people who do this." He said he hoped policymakers would also invest more money in mental health to "reduce pressure on the demand side of the equation."

The committee voted to pass the bill on an 8-7 vote, with Democrat Russet Perry, a former prosecutor, voting with Republicans. The committee did advance a separate measure from Sen. Bill DeSteph that would create a task force to study ways to combat fentanyl, heroin and other similar controlled substances after amending it to remove provisions similar to McDougle's bill.

Lawmakers have grappled with the question for years. In 2019, then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, vetoed a similar measure after lawmakers rejected his attempt to amend it. Last year, a similar measure was defeated.

Youngkin has made the matter a vocal priority during his time in office. His spokesman, Christian Martinez, said in a statement that it was "troubling that most Democrat legislators are once again siding with fentanyl makers and dealers over victims’ families."

Jill Cichowicz, whose twin brother died nearly seven years ago after taking a pill laced with fentanyl, said after the hearing that the families who testified were disappointed in the vote. But Cichowicz said she was holding out hope that the measure may still have a path forward in the Democrat-controlled House of Delegates, where similar legislation has not yet been heard.

If the House did advance that measure, the bill would then need the Senate's approval before it could go to Youngkin's desk.

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