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Utah lawmakers consider new crime for drug-induced homicide

FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, talks about naloxone opioid overdose reversal kits at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, talks about naloxone opioid overdose reversal kits at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are considering legislation that would create a new classification of crime for drug-induced homicide.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, presented HB309 to the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Friday, saying "we are strictly trying to target drug dealers."

Eliason said illegal drug dealers can import fentanyl, an opioid, from China for very cheap, and dealing in opioids is becoming a very lucrative business.

He told the story of a man who was running a "pill mill" in the basement of a home in Eliason's district. Investigators were able to trace the "chemical footprint" of several opioid deaths to that one individual dealing drugs, Eliason said.

The purpose of creating an offense called drug-induced homicide, which would be a first-degree felony, is deterrence, he said.

Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, asked the sponsor why he chose homicide instead of manslaughter.

"There has to be intent," Eliason said. "If I knowingly give a product to somebody that I know can cause death. Maybe they think they're buying oxycodone, and I've laced it with fentanyl to cut down on the cost of producing the product. I'm knowingly putting that person's life in jeopardy if I'm a dealer."

Eliason said the purpose is to send a "strong message" to drug dealers that if they feed someone's addiction with an illicit drug and that person dies, they can be charged with a homicide.

Eliason said the wording of his bill sets the bar high enough that it would only target the kingpins of the illicit drug industry — "people who, day in and day out, are trying to profit from people's addictions with reckless disregard for their health or safety."

Redd was still unsure if drug dealers could be charged with a homicide for dealing drugs, saying they just want to make money, not kill people, even though they may not care if they kill people.

Assistant attorney general Scott Reed, who is also a member of the attorney general's opioid task force, clarified that the concept behind the bill is called "strict liability," which means if a death results from the dealing of drugs, the fact that the drug dealer intended to deal drugs is all the intention a prosecutor would need to prove to bring a drug-induced homicide charge.

Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, representing the Utah Chiefs of Police, spoke in support of the bill.

"There's been some very high-profile death cases involving kids in our communities this past year," Ross said. "We've got to have a way to deal with these more serious dealers that really are the kingpin, business (types). They don't care about the kids. They don't care about the young adults that they are killing."

Eliason said he has read a lot of literature on the opioid crisis, and generally no government can't arrest its way out of having this problem, "but there comes a time to send a strong message to those that are running that continuous criminal enterprise that as a society we don't accept this and people are dying."

The committee passed out the bill unanimously with a favorable recommendation to the floor of the House for consideration.