California Prosecutors Filing Murder Charges in More Fentanyl Deaths

Just about every state in America has cracked down on fentanyl distribution, by stepping up arrests and increasing prison sentences. But few places are as aggressive as Riverside County, Calif., in prosecuting people who supply fatal does of fentanyl.

Since late 2021, the Riverside County district attorney, Mike Hestrin, has charged 34 suspected fentanyl suppliers with murder and is said to be the first prosecutor in California to achieve a guilty verdict from a jury in a fentanyl-related homicide trial.

“People are being devastated by this drug,” said Mr. Hestrin, who has been the district attorney in Riverside County, a sprawling area east of Los Angeles, for nine years.

Riverside County has a reputation for aggressively prosecuting crimes (a “prosecutor’s paradise,” one local defense lawyer calls it). And like Riverside, some other counties — like San Diego and Placer, near Sacramento — that have also brought murder charges against fentanyl suppliers have sizable numbers of conservative-minded voters who tend to favor more punitive approaches to crime.

But even in the liberal bastion of San Francisco, the district attorney’s office has been preparing to investigate fentanyl deaths as possible homicides, which would be a big shift in the city’s approach to drug-related crimes.

Prosecution of street dealers is faulted by some critics as a misguided return to the aggressive approaches of the 1990s, which failed to curb drug use and swelled state prison populations with low-level distributors and people who were addicted to drugs.

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