Northam vetoes bill to let drug dealers be charged with murder for fatal overdoses

Published: Feb. 28, 2019 at 5:30 PM EST
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UPDATE (May 2):

Governor Ralph Northam has vetoed a bill that Virginia lawmakers passed with bipartisan support to let prosecutors charge drug dealers with homicide for fatal overdoses.

amended Virginia's laws to let anyone who distributes controlled substances to someone who later dies from use of those substances be charged with causing that person's death.

The bill, which was supported by prosecutors across Virginia and by Attorney General Mark Herring, passed the House on a 69-30 vote and the Senate on a 40-0 vote.

Herring said in September 2017 that he had advocated for closing a loophole allowing "heroin/fentanyl/opioid dealers and traffickers to escape accountability when their drugs kill a Virginian" for three years.

However, Northam says the bill "goes beyond drug dealers and would punish individuals who are themselves struggling with addiction."

Below is Gov. Northam's full statement on his veto:

"Pursuant to Article V, Section 6, of the Constitution of Virginia, I veto House Bill 2528. This bill would hold a person who gives, manufactures, sells, or distributes a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance liable for a crime of felony murder when a recipient of the controlled substance dies as a result of an overdose, resulting in a sentence of five to 40 years in prison. The person would still face a charge of distribution of the controlled substance, subject to a penalty of five to 40 years imprisonment. Currently, under Virginia law, a person is liable for felony murder if in the manufacture, possession, or distribution of a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance, another person dies, if that death is connected in both time and place to the underlying felonious conduct. This legislation would expand the law to hold a person liable for felony murder without regard to whether the overdose was connected by time and place to the underlying felony. Essentially, a person would be criminally liable for murder even if the overdose occurred days or even months after the deceased received the drugs. The disease of addiction has long devastated our communities. While I share the goal of addressing the opioid crisis and ensuring drug dealers are punished for supplying dangerous drugs, this bill goes beyond drug dealers and would punish individuals who are themselves struggling with addiction. The way to help individuals struggling with addiction is to ensure they receive proper treatment. We must continue to focus on the biological, psychological, and social factors that foster addiction so that those factors can be addressed and mitigated in order to save Virginia’s families and communities from the destruction of drug addiction. Accordingly, I veto this bill."

Republicans quickly responded to the governor's veto.

“This bill passed with wide bipartisan support, because Republicans and Democrats alike recognize what this scourge is doing to our communities,” said Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R - Shenandoah). “For years, our Commonwealth’s Attorneys have been begging for this tool to go after those responsible for peddling this poison in our communities.”

“This year, Republicans and Democrats managed to come together and give them this tool, only to see Governor Northam try to gut the bill through the amendment process, and then veto it,” he added. “Virginians deserve better.”

Deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl

in Virginia from 2012 to 2017, the last year for which statistics are readily available, according to the National Institutes of Health.



Virginia lawmakers have passed a bill that would charge drug dealers with felony homicide if one of their customers dies from an overdose.

states that the penalty for such a crime is "punishable by confinement of not less than five nor more than 40 years, if the underlying felonious act that resulted in the killing of another involved the manufacture, sale, gift, or distribution of a Schedule I or II controlled substance to another and (i) such other person's death results from his use of the controlled substance and (ii) the controlled substance is the proximate cause of his death."

Under current law, a drug dealer would be charged in the death of a customer only if the overdose happened at the time and place of the deal.

Prosecutors in the Shenandoah Valley are praising the bill as it would give them more power to fight a growing problem.

"Normally speaking, a person doesn't ingest the drug right there in front of the drug dealer right after the sale," said Tim Martin, Commonwealth's Attorney for Augusta County. "Being able to charge them now despite the fact that it doesn't happen right before them is a huge advantage."

Some lawmakers have tried to pass similar bills for four years.

Republican Senator Mark Obenshain supported the bill. In a tweet, he said "I was pleased to support this legislation which will help to keep our children and communities safer. Drug dealers who sell opioids must be held accountable."

The bill will now head to Governor Ralph Northam's desk for a signature.

If signed, it will become law on July 1.