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Georgia House to consider bills to toughen penalties for fentanyl distribution


Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
March 4, 2024

The Georgia House is expected to consider criminal justice legislation designed to toughen penalties for people who sell fentanyl that causes an overdose and a bill that gives police officers more pay while recovering from severe injuries sustained on the job.

A bipartisan Senate majority supported legislation voted to create the crime of aggravated involuntary manslaughter for those convicted of delivering or selling drugs laced with fentanyl that cause the death of another person. The measure is now before the House chamber, which has until March 28 to pass legislation for this year.

The bill is named after former Lowndes County resident Austin Walters, who, while suffering from anxiety and depression in 2021, purchased fentanyl-laced Xanax pills. In September 2021, Walters was killed by a single pill laced with fentanyl after suffering from anxiety resulting in him seeking drugs off the street.

In the days following Walters’ death, his father emailed Cogdell Republican Sen. Russ Goodman, asking for help from state lawmakers in crafting criminal penalties for people providing fentanyl, a substance that is 100 times more potent than morphine.

Usually, fentanyl overdoses are caused by the substance being made illegally by mixing it with another drug without the user’s knowledge.

Fentanyl was responsible for more than 70,000 of the 106,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under Senate Bill 465, someone convicted of the new charge could serve between 10 to 30 years or life in prison. Prosecutors won’t have to prove the defendant knew the substance was tainted in order to bring charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Goodman said the legislation gives law enforcement and prosecutors stronger means of punishing fentanyl dealers. On Thursday, he thanked Walters’ parents for fighting to prevent other parents from suffering the heartbreak caused by the poisonous substance.

“Drug dealers benefit from the requirement currently under Georgia law that the state must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the dealer knew the chemical identity of the drugs he sold,” Goodman said. “Under Austin’s Law when the defendant intentionally sells what he believes to be a controlled substance and that substance kills someone then law enforcement will have the tools to bring that drug dealer to justice.”

Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson of Atlanta said that while the bill provides judges with discretion in sentencing, the new crime could also result in felony charges against a college student who unknowingly shares laced drugs with a friend.

Goodman said that the new law is intended to ensure the people distributing an illegal drug to a teenager are held responsible.

“This epidemic is plaguing our country and killing our children,” he said inside the Senate chamber in late February. “I’m hoping that this increased deterrence is going to make it where those fentanyl laced drugs never show up in the hands of that 17-year-old child.”

House lawmakers also have until March 28 to pass a Senate bill named after a Henry County deputy who lost wages not covered by worker’s compensation insurance while recovering from injuries sustained after being shot during an ambush.

Senate Bill 371, known as  the “Daniel D. Podsiadly, Jr. Act”, would change how the State Board of Workers’ Compensation handles cases involving police officers who suffer a catastrophic injury in the line of duty.

Under the bill, the injured officer would be eligible to receive the same benefits and pay as prior to suffering the injuries. A claim for catastrophic injuries would be investigated by the State Board of Workers’ Compensation to determine whether an office is eligible for the difference between their worker’s compensation and their law enforcement salary.

Podsiadly and two Clayton County police officers were shot in July 2023 while pursuing a man suspected of killing four people a day earlier in a Hampton subdivision. The 30-year veteran Henry County deputy testified before a Senate committee about the stress of trying to pay his bills while recovering from serious injuries.

Henry County Sheriff Reginald Scandrett organized a fundraiser to help pay his deputy’s bills, but soon after contacted state Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, about needing the state to provide financial support for officers facing similar situations. Workers’ compensation generally pays about two-thirds of the average weekly pay for an employee and in Georgia the maximum weekly amount for a temporary disability is $675.

Strickland would co-sponsor the legislation with Democratic Sen. Emanuel Jones, who also represents a section of Henry County.

“He recently returned to work and is back serving the citizens of Henry County, but because of his service and leadership of Sheriff Scandrett, they wanted to see the passage of this bill in the event another officer finds himself or herself in a similar situation,” Strickland said.

“Senate Bill 371 allows the state to step up and support these peace officers to make sure that while they’re home recovering, paying the bills supporting their family is one less thing to have to worry about,” he said.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.