A local prosecutor in California has secured what he says is the state’s first murder conviction in connection with a fatal fentanyl overdose, marking a legal milestone in the efforts to curb sales of the increasingly deadly drug.
The prosecutor, District Attorney Morgan Gire of Placer County, said that a 21-year-old man pleaded guilty last week to second-degree murder for providing fentanyl to a 15-year-old girl who died shortly after consuming it in June 2022.
The novel prosecution in Placer, northeast of Sacramento, is being closely watched in law enforcement and legislative circles in California, which lost about 6,000 people to fentanyl and other opioids in 2021, the last year for which complete data is available.
Prosecutors have been looking for ways to hold people distributing the drug accountable for the staggering death toll. But some lawmakers have expressed concern about a return to the aggressive drug prosecutions of decades ago, which resulted in dealers and users languishing in prisons across the United States.
“I have heard the criticism that this is a retread of the war on drugs,’’ Mr. Gire said in an interview. “It isn’t. Fentanyl is something different.”
Many of the fatalities caused by fentanyl are happening because the victims are unaware that the drug they are using contains the deadly opioid. In the California case, Mr. Gire sought to prove that the defendant, Nathaniel Evan Cabacungan, knew that the Percocet pills he provided to the girl contained fentanyl and that he knew “how deadly it was.” Mr. Cabacungan provided her with the pills, watched her die after taking them, walked away and then sold more of the drugs to others, according to Mr. Gire.
A public defender representing Mr. Cabacungan did not return a request for comment. Mr. Cabacungan, who faces a prison sentence that will be between 15 years and life, is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Overdoses are now a leading cause of death among Americans. Synthetic opioids contributed to 75,000 overdose deaths in 2022, with fentanyl accounting for most of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the toll rises, federal, state and local prosecutors across the country have brought charges against suppliers that have resulted in significant prison sentences.
But bringing a murder charge in a fentanyl death can be a difficult case to pursue, said Greg Totten, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Association.
A prosecutor needs to “prove that a drug dealer knew that the activity could lead to death and went ahead with the activity anyway,’’ Mr. Totten said. “It is a very high standard to prove.”
The California Legislature has been debating a series of bills aimed at addressing the fentanyl crisis, including a measure that would make it easier to pursue serious charges against suppliers. The measure would require that those convicted of a fentanyl offense be put on notice that they could face even more serious criminal consequences if they keep selling the drug and it results in a death.
But that and other measures have stalled amid concerns that the state should be focused on drug treatment and prevention, and not targeting street-level dealers.
Mr. Gire said he was pursuing murder charges in only three cases among the roughly 200 fentanyl-related deaths that have taken place in his county since 2020. He said he would avoid pursuing a murder charge, for example, against an addict who gave a fatal dose to another addict.
“We look at whether the person is looking to make a profit and what is their degree of callousness,’’ Mr. Gire said. “When they continue to do it and continue to kill people, that moves in the direction of murder.”