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Bill to create drug trafficking manslaughter charge back on agenda

Although the Legislature passed this bill in 2023, a glitch led to Gov. Kay Ivey signing the wrong version into law.

An illustration of fentanyl. STOCK

One of the first House bills filed for the upcoming legislative session is a bill the Legislature already passed in 2023.

However, a glitch in the state’s system led Gov. Kay Ivey to sign an incorrect version of the bill into law.

The bill Ivey signed more closely resembled the bill originally brought by House Speaker Pro Tempore Christie Pringle, R-Mobile, but the legislation underwent numerous changes on its path through the Legislature.

The resulting incongruence creates a murky legal status for actual enforcement of the law.

The ultimate bill approved by the Legislature in the previous session limited the new manslaughter charge to only apply in situations involving fentanyl. The version currently enacted into law applies more broadly to controlled substances.

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said earlier this year that the law would be practically unenforceable, explaining there was no rush to fix the law during the government body’s special session on redistricting.

Andrew Westcott, legal counsel for the Speaker’s office, said it is not quite that clear-cut.

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“That would ultimately be for a court to decide,” Westcott said. “There is some case law from the 1800s that supports that idea (that the law is not enforceable). It’s very possible it could be struck down if it were challenged … There’s not a lot of precedent on it, obviously. It’s hard to say what a judge today would do.”

Barry Matson, director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, lobbied lawmakers to fix the law in special session, arguing the law would not be enforced due to the error but that also prevents DAs from pursuing the charges actually intended by the Legislature.

Pringle has told a story of a friend’s son being hounded by a drug-dealer, ultimately leading the young man to take a fentanyl-laced drug that led to a fatal overdose.

Rep. Christie England, D-Tuscaloosa, has raised concerns about the bill possibly leading to prosecution of friends and family members of the victim and not just dealers, as drug users often use together.

“This is one of those bills that has much more unintended consequence than it does intended,” England said during House debate on the original bill. “This may be going after an ant with a sledgehammer. You may have more people unintentionally violating this law than intentionally violating it and it makes me uncomfortable.”

England also questioned whether the bill would serve as a deterrent, or merely a punishment.

“We don’t have a clue how to deal with people who are using and abusing a substance,” England said. “You understand just like everybody else does that when you’re under the influence of a substance, you do things you wouldn’t normally do … they do drugs with other people with no intent to harm them because they are taking the same drug themselves. The last place you want to put someone with an addiction problem is in prison. The likelihood of the practical implications of what your bill will do is incarcerate more people addicted to substances and also make it less likely that they seek help when they need it the most.”

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Alabama isn’t the first state to consider this law.

So far, 23 states have a law to this effect. Arkansas and Arizona are also considering similar bills and Wyoming’s Legislature just denied their own version of the law.

A record 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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