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Proposed law would slam drug dealers in fatal overdoses

An undated Suffolk County police evidence photo of

An undated Suffolk County police evidence photo of heroin confiscated by police in Smithtown. Photo Credit: SCPD

A dealer who sells drugs that contribute to a fatal overdose could face a far more severe legal penalty under a bill proposed Thursday in response to the scourge of heroin on Long Island.

The measure would allow prosecutors to level a sterner second-degree manslaughter charge against any adult with a previous drug conviction who gives or sells drugs to someone who dies after using them. That crime would be punishable by a maximum of 5 to 15 years in prison.

Currently, prosecutors are able only to charge dealers with drug possession and sales, except in the rare cases where they can show that a dealer actually injected someone with drugs before that person died.

State Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) and Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) introduced the bill, which is supported by Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

"The days of us coddling drug dealers as they peddle death are going to be over," Johnson said. "Now if you do it and you get caught, you're going to jail."

Experts said the proposed manslaughter charge would likely be useful as leverage and legal pressure against suspects in drug investigations or plea negotiations.

The bill addresses overdoses from any "controlled substance," but lawmakers were clear that the alarming spread of heroin use spurred them to write it. "My purpose is to severely punish people involved in the sale of this dangerous drug," Weisenberg said, referring to heroin.

Spokespeople for the majorities in the state Senate and Assembly said the bill is under review. Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Senate's Democratic majority, said toughening drug enforcement is a priority for lawmakers and the legislation will be seriously considered.

The bill's sponsors and prosecutors readily admit that, if the measure becomes law, the new cases will be difficult to win. People who die of overdoses often have multiple drugs in their system, and pinpointing one such substance and then tracing it back to a dealer will be complicated, they say.

What's more, critics say, when similar laws have been applied in other states, among those who tend to be charged and prosecuted are low-level operators and non-dealers who give drugs to their friends.

The proposed law was welcomed by Long Island narcotics detectives who pointed to difficulties in making manslaughter cases that can hold up in court.

Det. Lt. Pete Donohue of the Nassau police narcotics-vice squad said authorities investigating fatal overdoses often get dealers' names relatively easily from distraught parents or a victim's friends, who frequently are users as well.

With no law on the books to connect the drug sale to the death, "we go after them to catch them dirty or to get them to sell us drugs," Donohue said.

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