Assembly approves Kristen’s Law

STATE HOUSE – With a final vote today, the General Assembly approved Kristen’s Law, a bill sponsored by Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello and Sen. Hanna M. Gallo to strengthen penalties for dealers who sell fatal drug doses.

The bill (2018-H 7715Aaa, 2018-S 2279B), which now goes to the governor, specifies that any person convicted of unlawfully selling illicit substances that result in a person’s death shall be sentenced to up to life in prison.

“Our state is in the midst of a very serious opioid epidemic, much of which is fueled by powerful fentanyl that is being mixed, unbeknownst to the user, with other drugs. People are dying on a regular basis here in Rhode Island from lethal drugs that, in many cases, they never intended to take. Kristen’s Law is to serve as a strong deterrent to dealers by holding them accountable for profiting from this deadly scourge. It is one element of the multi-faceted effort to address this complicated crisis, and it gives law enforcement a tool they need to do their part,” said Speaker Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston).

Said Senator Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick), “Rhode Islanders across all walks of life are feeling the impacts of the opioid crisis. I have personally known too many Rhode Islanders who have been devastated during this crisis, including Kristen, who was a friend of my daughter. We need to send a strong, clear message to drug dealers that people are dying as a result of their actions. They need to know that we will hold them criminally responsible for those deaths.”

Rhode Island does not currently have the necessary statute to address all instances of unlawful drug deliveries that result in death. The only provisions of the General Laws that may be applicable to a drug delivery death resulting are first-degree felony murder and second-degree murder, which do not always apply.

Under the bill, controlled substance delivery resulting in death would be a new charge available to prosecutors, although a similar statute already exists for those who provide lethal drugs to minors.

The legislation, which the sponsors introduced at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, is named after Kristen Coutu of Cranston, who died as a result of a deadly dose of fentanyl in 2014. Aaron Andrade, the dealer who sold nearly pure fentanyl to her in what was supposed to be a dose of heroine, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in her death, becoming the first Rhode Island drug dealer convicted of murder in connection with an overdose death. Coutu’s mother, Sue Coutu, has been a strong advocate for the legislation.

“On behalf of the Office of Attorney General, I want to express our deep gratitude to Sue Coutu for entrusting Kristen’s memory with us and allowing this law to be named after her daughter. Through Sue, we have had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Kristen as the loving and caring young person she was,” said Attorney General Kilmartin. “Nothing can ever fill the empty space in Sue’s heart left by the murder of her daughter. Yet, I hope she can take some comfort in knowing that Kristen’s story helped pass the necessary statute to give police and prosecutors the tools they need to hold drug dealers and drug traffickers who sell fatal drugs criminally liable. I also want to thank Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senator Hanna Gallo for their continued advocacy and commitment to pass Kristen’s Law.”

Said Sue Coutu, “I would like to take this opportunity to thank Speaker Mattiello, Senator Gallo, Attorney General Kilmartin and members of his staff, as well as members of the General Assembly who voted affirmatively for passage of Kristen’s Law. It has special meaning for me as it honors the life of my daughter, and those whose lives have been lost to overdose at the hands of a drug dealer or trafficker. My sincere hope is that this law helps to prevent the loss of lives, and the pain and suffering of their loved ones.”

The bill was amended during the legislative process to clarify that its intent is to hold drug traffickers accountable, in order to address concerns that those suffering with substance use disorders would be subject to criminal prosecution, and to clarify that the statute applies to those who sell drugs, not individuals who shared drugs with the victim.

The amendments also made it clear that the Good Samaritan law shall be applicable to the section, meaning that individuals who seek medical assistance for someone experiencing a controlled substance overdose shall not be charged or prosecuted for violations of the section, if the evidence for the charge was gained as a result of the seeking of medical assistance.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more than 35 states have statutes that provide for criminal liability in a drug overdose death. The federal government and 20 states have drug-induced homicide statutes in some capacity. In fact, if a delivery resulting in death was charged under federal law, the deliverer would be subject to up to life imprisonment with a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concluded that most of the increase in fentanyl deaths do not involve prescription fentanyl, but rather are related to illicitly manufactured fentanyl and counterfeit opioid pills that are mixed with highly lethal analogs and then sold intentionally without the user’s knowledge of its lethality.