The Senate Judiciary Committee passes a bill increasing the punishment for drug dealers when a person dies as a direct result of using the substance they sold.
Senate Bill 65 increases a felony distribution by two classes if this occurs. But, the charge doesn't exceed a Class C felony. The maximum sentence for a Class C is life in prison and a potential 50-thousand dollar fine. Attorney General Marty Jackley is a proponent of Senate Bill 65. Jackley says there are four open investigations into drug overdoses in South Dakota. He says the legislation is needed to combat drug crime in the state.
"But obviously, we have a drug epidemic in the nation. It's coming to South Dakota. I think this sends the right deterrent message. If you're going to deal drugs knowingly and for money, and you're going to kill somebody, you're gonna get more than a ten year felony and eligibility in a couple years for parole. I think it's that serious and the fact that we have four of these cases cries out for a need to address this problem. And, I think this fairly addresses it, and again, it never rises to the level past a class C felony, so it doesn't rise above manslaughter,"Jackley says.
State Division of Criminal Investigation Director Brian Gortmaker and representatives with the South Dakota Sheriff's Association and the State Police Chief's Association also testified in favor of the bill. Lindsey-Riter Rapp with the South Dakota Association of Defense Attorneys opposes Senate Bill 65. She agrees there should be a punishment for people who purposely deal drugs and someone dies because of it. But, she says the maximum sentence of a Class C felony is too harsh.
"When I was looking at the code, I found obviously, first-degree manslaughter. If you look at the first-degree manslaughter statutes that talks about without design to affect death and in the heat of passion, without design to affect death but with a dangerous weapon. So, those are two examples of what is first-degree manslaughter. I would suggest that the conduct that they're asking that you criminalize today more closely resembles a second-degree manslaughter, which is reckless conduct. That is a different penalty, a class four penalty," Riter-Rapp says.
A Class Four felony carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and the possibility of a 20 thousand dollar fine. Jackley says judges have the flexibility to sentence those convicted to no jail time or probation - or hand out a sentence of up to life in prison under the Class C felony.
After about a half hour of testimony and discussion, committee members pass Senate Bill 65 on a 5-1 vote with one senator excused.