Lawmakers push 'Death by Dealer' bill to enhance charges against seller in fatal overdoses

Robert Brodsky for Newsday

September 22, 2021

Originally published in Newsday on September 22, 2021.

Nine years ago, Linda Ventura's world came to a halt when her son Thomas died of a heroin overdose at the age of 21.

There would be no more photos of the budding lacrosse star in family albums. No more family vacations with Thomas and his two siblings. And plans for a return to college vanished in a heartbeat.

Thomas, who grew up in Kings Park, had been home for just one day from a 21-day rehabilitation center when he died.

Compounding the heartbreak, the drug dealers who sold the fatal batch of heroin to Thomas escaped punishment.

But Ventura, who founded Thomas’ Hope, a foundation that promotes drug awareness and prevention, said the law must change to ensure that dealers who push drugs that kill addicts face harsher punishments.

On Wednesday, Ventura, now of Holtsville, joined state lawmakers and drug treatment experts to lobby for passage of the "Death by Dealer" law that would allow prosecutors statewide to charge dealers who sell fatal batches of narcotics with homicide.

"I am sick and tired of the same dealers being on the same street corners," Ventura said at a news conference outside THRIVE, a Westbury treatment center. " … There will be an open door in hell when they get there but in the meantime let's make their lives here a living hell while they are in jail. It will send a clear message to anyone that wants to replace them."

The legislation, sponsored by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre), would allow enhanced charges to be leveled against dealers whose customers die of overdoses.

Prosecutors would be able to charge class A felonies, such as murder, if there are aggravated circumstances, such as the drugs being sold to a minor or an individual who had just left rehab or if the dealer deliberately adds fentanyl to the drug.

"Law enforcement needs every tool possible and that means getting drug dealers off our streets who are killing our neighbors," said Kaminsky, who is running for Nassau district attorney and who has lobbied for the bill since 2015. "We are at a crossroads. We cannot keep losing more of our loved ones and this death by dealer bill is an important tool to help push back."

Griffin called the bill a "vital tool … to hold dealers accountable."

Currently, Kaminsky said, prosecutors need additional evidence to prove that dealers did more than just sell drugs in order to charge a B felony, such as first-degree manslaughter.

For example, on the East End, Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini brought manslaughter charges against two men charged with a spate of deaths connected to the sale of fentanyl-laced cocaine after recovering several incriminating text messages between one of the victims and a dealer.

"We ought to come down like a ton of bricks on the dealers that are poisoning our communities," said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association.

For Ventura, passage of the bill cannot come soon enough.

"They are preying on the most vulnerable population that not only has substance abuse disorder but may have mental health issues," she said. "They're knowingly living a lavish lifestyle for themselves and knowing that they could cause death at any moment."