Fighting Fentanyl in California: Prosecuting murder

The war against fentanyl rages on as the synthetic opioid continues killing children, teens and adults at alarming rates across the nation. 

As communities continue being ravaged by fentanyl deaths, one local prosecutor has made it his mission to deter drug dealers by handing down the harshest penalty against those tied to fentanyl fatalities — second-degree murder.

KTLA’s Karen Wynter reports on the opioid crisis in Part Two of the “Fighting Fentanyl” series.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin helped form a gang impact team in 2021. The unit has arrested dozens of suspected drug dealers, with some tied to deadly overdoses. 

Riverside County was the first county in California to prosecute fentanyl deaths as murder. So far, they’ve prosecuted 15 cases — the most in the state. 

“The amount of fentanyl we are seizing from the streets is eye-popping,” says Hestrin. “It’s enough to kill everyone in the county.”

Hestrin can’t stop the production of fentanyl across the border in Mexico, so he and the Riverside County Sheriff, along with other local police chiefs have partnered with federal agencies to combat the opioid crisis.

Hestrin says the crackdown he’s leading has been noticed by criminals.

“I’ve also heard they’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of Riverside County’ which of course, brings a smile to my face,” said Hestrin.

The DA’s office is now charging drug dealers with murder if the drugs they sold resulted in a known fatality.

“I want to keep the people of my county safe,“ said Hestrin. “That’s my job.”

State law makes Hestrin’s job tricky though, as fentanyl death cases remain difficult to prosecute. 

To charge an alleged fentanyl dealer with second-degree murder, prosecutors must prove that the seller was aware the drugs they were selling would kill someone. Hestrin said if those local criteria are not met, the case would be transferred to a federal agency which has a lower bar for prosecution.

“It’s beginning to change the entire way law enforcement across California looks at fentanyl distribution,” explained Hestrin. “Just the change in attitude of ‘We’re going to look at this as a homicide investigation’ has made all the difference.”

Other local counties have taken notice with San Bernardino, Orange, San Diego, Kern and Fresno counties now prosecuting fentanyl death cases as second-degree murder.  

Los Angeles County, however, is not on that list.

“This is only county down here where we don’t have a DA actively prosecuting fentanyl dealers to the fullest extent of the law,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami.

Hatami says his boss, L.A. District Attorney George Gascón refuses to file murder charges in fentanyl homicide investigations.

Hatami says the most prosecutors can charge suspected dealers within L.A. County is involuntary manslaughter.

Those prosecuted under involuntary manslaughter can be released after one to two years while a second-degree murder charge can carry up to a life sentence.

When KTLA’s Kareen Wynter asked why L.A. County doesn’t fentanyl prosecute cases as murder, Gascón said, “When people are trafficking drugs, we are very harsh. We’re going to go very aggressively against them. If you’re trafficking drugs, if you’re dealing in death, yes, you’ll face very strict consequences.”

Gascón did not directly answer Wynter’s question.

In 2021, Riverside County had around 500 fentanyl-related deaths. The Riverside DA’s office prosecuted about 20 of them, with 15 of those cases filed as murder.

L.A. County had nearly 1,700 fentanyl deaths in 2021. How many of those cases were prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder? 

KTLA reached out to Gascón’s office for numbers but has not yet heard back.

But Hatami says an involuntary manslaughter charge still isn’t enough.

“If you sell fentanyl to a child and as a result, that child is killed, if we have the evidence, we should charge that dealer to the fullest extent of the law and that is second-degree murder,” said Hatami.

Meanwhile, Hestrin’s narcotics task force in Riverside continues to work around the clock to keep communities as safe as possible.

These agencies are hoping to root out the powerful drug poisoning neighborhoods and destroying lives — one sale at a time.

KTLA’s Kareen Wynter reports on Part Three of the “Fighting Fentanyl” series on Wednesday, Nov. 17.