Georgia House of Representatives considers bills to toughen penalties for fentanyl trafficking • Georgia Recorder

The Georgia House of Representatives is expected to consider criminal legislation that would increase penalties for selling fentanyl, which causes overdoses, and a bill that would increase police officers' pay while they recover from serious injuries sustained in the line of duty.

A bipartisan Senate majority supported a bill that would make manslaughter a crime for people convicted of delivering or selling drugs laced with fentanyl that cause the death of another person. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, which has until March 28 to pass the bill this year.

The bill is named after former Lowndes County resident Austin Walters, who purchased fentanyl-laced Xanax pills in 2021 while suffering from anxiety and depression. In September 2021, Walters died from a single fentanyl-laced pill after suffering from anxiety that led him to purchase drugs on the street.

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

Typically, a fentanyl overdose is caused by the substance being manufactured illegally by mixing it with another drug without the user's knowledge.

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

Under Senate Bill 465, someone convicted of this new charge could serve a prison sentence of between 10 and 30 years, or life. Prosecutors do not have to prove that the defendant knew the substance was tainted to bring manslaughter charges.

Goodman said the law gives law enforcement and prosecutors stronger powers to punish fentanyl dealers. On Thursday, he thanked Walters' parents for their fight to prevent other parents from suffering the suffering caused by the toxic substance.

“Drug dealers benefit from Georgia law's current requirement that the state prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the dealer knew the chemical identity of the drugs he sold,” Goodman said. “Under Austin's law, law enforcement has the tools to bring the drug dealer to justice if the defendant intentionally sells something he believes to be a controlled substance and that substance kills someone.”

Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson of Atlanta said that while the bill gives judges discretion in sentencing, the new crime could also lead to a felony charge against a college student who unknowingly passes adulterated drugs to a friend.

Goodman said the new law is intended to ensure that those who give a teenager illegal drugs are held accountable.

“This epidemic is plaguing our country and killing our children,” he told the Senate in late February. “I hope that this increased deterrence will ensure that these fentanyl-laced drugs never get into the hands of this 17-year-old child.”

House members also have until March 28 to pass a Senate bill named after a Henry County sheriff's deputy who lost wages not covered by accident insurance while recovering from injuries sustained in an ambush.

Senate Bill 371, known as the Daniel D. Podsiadly, Jr. Act, would change the way the State Board of Workers' Compensation handles cases in which police officers suffer a catastrophic injury in the line of duty.

Under the bill, the injured officer would be entitled to the same benefits and pay as he or she received before his or her injury. A claim for serious injury compensation would be reviewed by the State Board of Workers' Compensation to determine whether an officer is entitled to the difference between his or her workers' compensation and his or her salary as a police officer.

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

Henry County Sheriff Reginald Scandrett organized a fundraiser to pay his deputy's bills, but soon after contacted state Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican from McDonough, to ask that the state provide financial assistance to officers in similar situations. Workers' compensation insurance generally covers about two-thirds of a worker's average weekly wage, and in Georgia, the maximum weekly amount for temporary disability is $675.

Strickland would co-sponsor the bill with Democratic Senator Emanuel Jones, who also represents part of Henry County.

“He recently returned to duty and is back serving the citizens of Henry County, but because of his service and Sheriff Scandrett's leadership, they wanted to see this bill passed in case another officer finds himself in a similar situation,” Strickland said.

“Senate Bill 371 allows the state to provide support to these police officers to ensure that while they are recovering at home, they do not have to worry about paying the bills to support their families,” he said.

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