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Drug overdose manslaughter bill passes House

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill that would expand Alabama’s manslaughter charge to apply to those who sell or distribute a controlled substance that results in a fatal overdose was approved Thursday in the House after about two hours of debate and opposition from Democrats.

Sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, House Bill 82 would expand the Class B felony charge of manslaughter – which carries with it a sentence of two to 20 years imprisonment – to include those who “recklessly” cause the death of another person by selling or distributing a controlled substance. The Alabama Health Department names 30 drugs as being considered controlled substances, with some of the more common examples being amphetamines, fentanyl, cocaine and oxycodone.

“What this bill says is if you are selling a controlled substance – oxycodone or any narcotic – and you are not a doctor or a pharmacist and you kill somebody, you can be charged with manslaughter,” Pringle said on the House floor.

A total of eight lawmakers voiced their concerns with the bill, including the potential of incarcerating drug users who may have unknowingly sold or distributed a drug laced with a more deadly narcotic.

“We keep talking about drug dealers, but this doesn’t just apply to drug dealers,” said Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa.

“It could be two friends together, one friend gives somebody else a drug, and that drug is determined to be the primary substance that took that other person’s life, so they could ultimately be charged with manslaughter, right?”

Pringle confirmed that under his bill, any individual who sells or gives another person a controlled substance that results in a fatal overdose would be subject to a manslaughter charge.

Rep. Chris England, R-Tuscaloosa, speaks against the drug overdose manslaughter bill on the House floor.

Beyond the bill causing “much more unintended consequences than it does intended,” England also voiced concerns that it could discourage people from seeking medical treatment for another person who is overdosing out of fear of being charged with manslaughter.

“This could potentially also encourage individuals that we’re trying to help prevent from overdosing, ultimately end up that way, because if you call law enforcement, and that person’s dying with you there, under this you potentially committed manslaughter,” England said.

In 2015, lawmakers passed House Bill 208, also known as Alabama’s Good Samaritan Law, which would grant immunity under certain circumstances from drug possession charges for those who sought medical assistance for someone experiencing an overdose.

England argued that under Pringle’s bill, that Good Samaritan Law would be undermined.

“The practical implication of what your bill will do is incarcerate more people addicted to substances, and also make it less likely that that person seeks help when they need it the most,” England said. “And maybe that’s your intent, maybe you don’t want people calling the police in the event that somebody near them gets sick.”

While the bill saw opposition from Democrats, including from Reps. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, Tashina Morris, D-Montgomery, and Napoleon Bracy, D-Saraland, among others, the bill also saw strong support.

Rep. Jim Hill, R–Odenville, praised Pringle for introducing the bill, and in an apparent attempt to quash concerns raised by some lawmakers, pointed out that a manslaughter charge carries with it a considerable burden of proof for prosecution.

“This is not going to be an easy bill for a district attorney to prove; you’ve got to prove the individual died, you’ve got to prove that that individual died by virtue of ingesting this particular material, and then you’ve got to prove who gave it to them,” Hill said. 

“It’s not going to be easy to prove – manslaughter cases should not be easy to prove – I have no problem with that, nevertheless I support the bill because I think it is a reasonable extension of what we’re trying to do around here, which is prevent people from dying.”

The bill was endorsed by the Alabama District Attorneys Association in April as part of an anti-crime package.

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, successfully amended the bill to change “recklessly causes the death of another person,” to “knowingly causes the death of another person.” 

While the amendment was designed to increase the burden of proof for a manslaughter conviction related to an overdose, England said such a change wouldn’t “really change anything,” and that his concerns remained strong.

The bill passed the House with a vote of 88-11, with two members abstaining.

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