An Inland Empire lawmaker is proposing legislation to crack down on fentanyl dealers by establishing an admonition that would require convicted narcotics suppliers to acknowledge their awareness of the dangers of selling deadly drugs, paving the way for murder prosecutions if they cause a fentanyl poisoning or similar overdose.
Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Beaumont, drafted Senate Bill 13, titled “Alexandra’s Law,” for the upcoming legislative session, which will begin in January.
“Fentanyl-related deaths have swept my district and the state recently,” Bogh said. “As a mother, it’s heartbreaking to listen to families describe the tragic deaths of their loved ones. Meeting with Alexandra’s family, and learning about her story compelled me to take action immediately and introduce SB 13. We must join together, fight against these senseless deaths, and hold the individuals who knowingly distribute fentanyl accountable for the irreparable harm they cause.”
Under the bill, a person convicted of narcotics dealing would be required to sign an advisement specifying his or her understanding of the perils of distributing certain drugs, like fentanyl. The acknowledgment would be analogous to a “Watson admonition,” which requires DUI offenders to sign affidavits stating they understand drinking or drug-impaired driving could lead to deadly collisions.
The Watson warning lays the foundation for future second-degree murder prosecutions if the offender causes a fatal crash.
Former Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, twice attempted to muster support for a virtually identical bill, also dubbed Alexandra’s Law, in the last two years, with the support of multiple district attorneys, including Riverside County’s top prosecutor, Mike Hestrin. The proposal never reached the Senate floor due to lack of support from Democratic legislators.
In Riverside and Orange counties, prosecutors have proceeded with murder filings for fentanyl poisonings anyway, based on locally created criteria. In Riverside County, since February 2021, roughly two dozen people have been charged in connection with fentanyl-related deaths.
“The data is shocking,” Bogh said. “SB 13 is a critical next step in the fight against the drug poisonings sweeping through our communities, and hopefully (it will) save lives, like Alexandra’s.”
Alexandra Capelouto, 20, of Temecula, suffered a fatal coronary in December 2019 after consuming a counterfeit Oxycodone pill containing fentanyl that she believed was half of a Percocet tablet. She had purchased a total of 11 pills from 23-year-old Brandon Michael McDowell of Riverside, with whom she connected via a social media site while on Christmas break from college, according to federal prosecutors.
In August, McDowell pleaded guilty to a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute fentanyl. He’s slated to be sentenced in February and is facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though he’s not expected to receive the upper tier term.
Capelouto’s father, Matt Capelouto, has spearheaded state and national campaigns to spotlight the dangers of fentanyl and the need to establish austere penalties for those convicted of selling the synthetic opioid.
“Everybody in the supply chain needs to be held accountable,” he said during a news briefing in January. “The drug dealers, the cartels in Mexico, right back to China. This war is not fought with bullets. They’re poisoning us from within.”
Statistics published in May by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed there were roughly 108,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2021, and fentanyl poisoning accounted for over 80,000 of them.
The substance is manufactured in overseas labs, and according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, it’s smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border by cartels. It’s 80-100 times more potent than morphine and can be mixed into any number of street narcotics and prescription drugs, without a user knowing what he or she is consuming. Ingestion of only two milligrams can be fatal.
In her legislation, Bogh includes data from the state showing that, in 2021, 5,722 of the 10,416 Californians who died from a drug overdose died from fentanyl poisoning.
So far this year in Riverside County, 415 people have died from fentanyl poisonings. That’s a 200-fold increase from 2016, when only two such fatalities were documented.
In October, the county initiated a public awareness campaign, “The Faces of Fentanyl,” emphasizing the perils of using it. The campaign web portal, www.FacesOfFentanyl.net, offers resources, including substance abuse counseling options, that are available to residents countywide.