SF District Attorney Brooke Jenkins is taking another tough-on-drug-crime stance ahead of the November election that will determine if she keeps the job, stating that her office will pursue murder charges if and when they link a fentanyl dealer to an overdose death.
This is definitely some performative politics today from the DA's office, and it may not even hold up in court. But Jenkins continues to focus on drug-dealing in the Tenderloin ahead of the election, to curry favor with residents who believe this is the city's greatest ill, and this is the latest gambit.
"Since 2020, nearly 1,700 people have died of drug overdose [in the city], mostly from fentanyl, in part because dealers have been allowed to operate with impunity for over two years," Jenkins said in a statement Wednesday. She added that her staff has recently been warning suspected dealers at court appearances that murder charges could be coming if an overdose linked to them occurs.
"We have to send a strong message in the community and in the courtroom that we will not stand by and allow dealers to kill innocent people and those suffering from addiction," Jenkins said.
"I am committed to seeking relief for communities ravaged by open air drug markets and holding repeat offenders accountable," Jenkins says. "Where our individualized review reveals an extreme public safety threat to San Franciscans, I have authorized my office to use every legal means to seek detention. We are hopeful our partners at the courts will respond favorably to our arguments as they acknowledge the level of death and misery on our streets is unacceptable."
As for those "partners at the courts," they may not always agree with this policy. And as the Chronicle reports, via a spokesperson for the DA's office, judges have denied the majority of requests filed so far by prosecutors to detain suspected dealers ahead of their trials, without bail. And up to now, judges in San Francisco have tended to favor diversion programs over prison time for dealers generally — so are they going to jump on board with murder charges?
The Chronicle also notes that some other, less urban counties in California have been pursuing manslaughter charges in cases of fentanyl overdoses. And in one recent case, the charge stuck, following the December 2020 death of a Placer County teenager, 17-year-old Zachary Didier, from a fentanyl-laced pill he bought on Snapchat. The accused dealer, Virgil Xavier Bordner, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and other charges, and as the Chronicle reported, he's going to prison for 17 years as part of the deal.
In that case, Bordner was a friend who took a pill from the same batch that Didier did — and his defense contends that he even warned Didier to take less of a dose than he took. The pills, counterfeit Oxycontin, ended up being laced with fentanyl, but Bordner survived his dose.
The case is not unique, but it's part of a much broader problem that needs to be treated with awareness campaigns as much as with the law. As the New York Times reported in May, while teens have been doing less and less experimentation with drugs over the last decade, teen deaths from fentanyl have been skyrocketing nationwide in the last several years.
But the crisis in SF isn't about teenagers as much as it is about addicts on the streets.
As the SF Standard reports, at least one judge has pushed back on the DA's office regarding warnings of future potential murder charges.
Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Hilton, speaking about her client Nicole Palma, one of the accused dealers, said in court of the prosecution, "They are giving her admonitions, so that they can use it against her in the future if anything should happen."
And Judge Christine Van Aken agreed, allowing Palma to go free with an ankle monitor rather than be jailed without bail, saying, "Letting people know of the dangers of this conduct and that they stop engaging in it is very important but creating evidence for a future prosecution is not at all germane."
As the Chronicle points out, tough-on-crime policies and charging people with murder over fentanyl deals flies easier in rural places where both the prosecutors and their constituencies are largely white — and issues around racial justice and disparities in drug prosecutions don't figure into the equation.
"I’d be surprised if the DAs [taking those stances] there are not popular," says Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, who has been researching fentanyl, speaking to the Chronicle. "I doubt anyone is going to show up protesting."
But in San Francisco?
Photo: U.S. Department of Justice