ND bill would punish high-volume drug dealers, including those tied to overdose deaths
The bill, heard Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was brought in response to a rising number of overdose deaths caused by fentanyl.
BISMARCK — No one spoke Monday, Jan. 30, against a bill supporters say would give law enforcement the ability to punish high-volume drug dealers, including those tied to overdose deaths.
Ladd Erickson, state’s attorney in McLean and Sheridan counties, said Senate Bill 2248 is aimed at letting law enforcement “follow the evidence as far as it will take you.” The bill, heard Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was brought in response to a rising number of overdose deaths caused by fentanyl.
Erickson explained that the supply of drugs reaching North Dakota — nearly all of which are tainted with fentanyl — start out in kilogram quantities. As the drugs are distributed, kilos become pounds, pounds become ounces, and ounces grams. The state’s law enforcement resources are spent mainly on the gram users, which does little to disrupt the supply chain or hold volume dealers accountable for overdose deaths, he said.
The wording of the bill allows law enforcement to prosecute dealers who supply drugs that, directly or indirectly, cause the death of a user. If law enforcement makes a drug arrest in Sheridan County, for example, but determines the supply came from Burleigh County, charges could be filed in both counties, Erickson said.
“The idea is to have homicide investigators converging back from the bodies to the hub,” he said. “You want to put paranoia and accountability as far up the supply chain as you can.”
Senate Bill 2248 in its original form would have barred the use of deferred sentence impositions and plea agreements for defendants facing charges related to fentanyl distribution. It would have also provided one-year mandatory minimum sentences upon conviction or a guilty plea. Amendments to the bill removed or replaced those items.
Travis Finck, director of the North Dakota Committee on Legal Counsel for Indigents, said he had originally planned to ask the committee to recommend that the bill not be passed.
Mandatory minimum sentences don’t work, he said in written testimony, and barring plea agreements could lead to the dismissal of cases or force a prosecutor to try a losing case because more evidence turns up as a case plays out. Low-level defendants often provide information in on higher-level crimes, and taking away deferred impositions — which keep felonies off a person’s record if they stay out of trouble — takes away the incentive to provide such information.
Without those items, the bill was “palatable,” Finck said.
The bill also outlines requirements for law enforcement reporting of deaths related to fentanyl use. Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, a sponsor of the bill, said the mandatory minimum wording was replaced to push for 20-year sentences for a dealer tied directly or indirectly to an overdose death.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimated a funding impact of more than $400,000 in the next two years and nearly $500,000 in the 2025-27 biennium, according to a fiscal note attached to the original bill. Those numbers likely would decrease with the deletion of the mandatory minimums, Hogue said.
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.