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Call for law charging drug dealers with manslaughter: Local officials want action by State

With the New York State legislative session waning, Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond Tierney’s office united elected officials from both sides of the aisle and parents who lost children to drug overdoses, to demand that state lawmakers pass Chelsey’s Law, one of four bills aimed at curbing fentanyl-related deaths and supporting families whose loved ones died of drug overdoses.

Among the four bills the bipartisan coalition wants enacted is “Chelsey’s Law,” named for Chelsey Murray, who fatally overdosed from fentanyl mixed with heroin in 2022. She was 31.

The bill is the latest iteration of a “Death by Dealer” statute, which policy makers and anti-drug advocates have pushed both for and against in recent years. Chelsey’s Law would amend the state penal code to charge drug dealers with manslaughter, provided the dealer had reasonable grounds to know their product contained fentanyl, “the driving force and common denominator” behind the more than 400 overdose deaths in Suffolk County in 2022, according to the district attorney’s office.

Preliminary counts for 2023 estimate that one Suffolk County resident died of a drug overdose for every day of the year, according to chief Assistant District Attorney Allen Bode.

As of September 2023, Shelter Island has had 42 cases of overdoses from drugs since 2015, with six fatalities, according to the Shelter Island Police Department. In 2023 alone, there were six reported overdoses and no deaths. Narcan, administered by Shelter Island Emergency Medical Services teams, is primarily responsible for saving those lives.

In the summer of 2021, five North Fork residents and one Islander, Swainson Brown, suffered fatal overdoses from cocaine laced with fentanyl over the course of three devastating days in August.

State Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk),who sponsored “Chelsey’s Law” in the State Senate said, “The fentanyl epidemic has impacted every corner of our state and every segment of society. It doesn’t discriminate. It has taken both young and old, rich and poor. Time is a luxury we don’t have when addressing this issue. I urge my fellow colleagues on both sides of the aisle to come together and provide the men and women on the front lines with the tools and resources they need to combat this crisis.”

Following a press conference outside the district attorney’s Hauppauge office, Assistant D.A. Bode explained that a drug sale can typically put a dealer behind bars for around 10 years. “For manslaughter, we can get 15 years, that’s what we’re looking for, but not for every dealer,” he said. “If you sell something and you don’t know that it’s deadly and death [is the result], you should be sentenced for a drug sale. But when you know it’s going to be deadly, you should face those consequences.”

Mr. Bode pointed to text messages as proof that a dealer had reasonable grounds to know they were dealing a deadly substance. Such evidence could have been used to charge Jaquan Casserly, 34, of Holbrook — who last month, pleaded guilty to selling Ms. Murray a deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl — with drug-induced manslaughter.

According to the district attorney’s office, a search of Mr. Casserly’s phone indicated that “he arranged to meet [Ms. Murray] on Aug. 17, 2022, offering to sell her ‘fetty mix,’ a street term used to describe a mix of fentanyl and heroin.” However, on May 8, 2024, Mr. Casserly was sentenced to 10 years for the sale that resulted in Ms. Murray’s death, because there is currently no legal pathway to charging a drug dealer with manslaughter.

Drug-related cases in lower courts have resulted in less stringent sentences. In a 2019 case centered on Lawrence Yaccarino, a Riverhead man who died in 2018 of an overdose, Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Tanya Rickoff argued that dealer Lashawn Lawrence of Greenport knew he sold heroin laced with fentanyl. Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony Senft acquitted Mr. Lawrence of manslaughter and sentenced him to two to four years on a fourth-degree conspiracy charge.

In January, Suffolk D.A. Tierney kicked off a public campaign for Chelsey’s Law. Alongside parents of those who lost children to fatal overdoses, he urged lawmakers to sign the bipartisan legislation package introduced by Assemblyman Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) and State Senators Dean Murray (R-Patchogue), Senator Palumbo, and Steven Rhoads (R-Massapequa).

The four bills have the public support of all Suffolk County supervisors.

“[Chelsey’s Law] is a bill that says if you’re dealing fentanyl and someone dies, you can be charged with manslaughter,” Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine said last week. “It’s a common-sense bill … It’s time to say to those who deal in fentanyl, ‘You’re dealing in death’ and if you deal in death, we’re going to make sure you pay a price for that.’”

Ms. Murray’s mother and father, Gene and Sue Murray, were among the parents of five children who died of overdoses who gathered on the steps outside the district attorney’s office.

“This isn’t about my daughter’s name,” Mr. Murray said. “It’s about all the thousands of people that fentanyl has killed, the drug dealers that get [away] with a slap on the wrist to start selling again and the thousands of people this may save in the future.”

The East End Drug Task Force — comprising officers from local police departments, New York State Police officers, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration — has battled drug sales for decades.

As a detective in the early ’90s, Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley served on the task force. Back then, he said, the largest cases pertained to the distribution of crack cocaine.

Fentanyl, he said, became a concern for his department in the last five or so years “when we started getting intel from different people on the street, where it became an issue and where it became a little bit more widespread, being cut into cocaine and other substances.”

The chief said the Southold Police Department currently has one officer assigned to the task force, which enables various agencies to share personnel as a case builds in a particular township over a span of several months.

In December, the East End Task Force arrested a Greenport couple at their home, where officers allegedly discovered fentanyl and cocaine stored alongside items such as ice cream cones and brownie mix. And in April, following a task force sting operation, Riverhead police made three arrests related to cocaine sales they allege occurred within the La Perla Restaurant and Bar.

Chief Flatley said, “We take the drug-related information that we get and the complaints of people that are selling very seriously. It takes a top priority when we’re looking to address [a drug-related] issue because, obviously, we don’t want to get into a situation like we did [in 2021].”

Among the other three bills Long Island parents and elected officials demand state lawmakers pass is a request to reduce the amount of fentanyl dealers must possess to be held on bail. Currently, state law allows local district attorneys to ask for bail if a dealer is apprehended with a minimum of 8 ounces of fentanyl — enough to kill 113,410 people, according to D.A. Tierney’s office. Those arrested with less are arraigned and released without bail.

“Get hold of the lawmakers and tell them [the bail bill] is a common sense issue,” Mr. Murray urged those in attendance at last week’s press conference. “Who are they protecting? The dealers? Or are they out to protect the lives of people in their constituency that really need these laws.”

Another bill in the legislative bundle would designate xylazine, a tranquilizer veterinarians and farmers administer to large livestock, as a controlled substance. Like fentanyl, xylazine has been abused as an adulterant in other illicit street drugs.

The fourth bill proposes that the families of those who die from a drug overdose be entitled to compensation through the New York State Office of Victims Services. Among other crime-related out-of-pocket expenses, these families would be eligible for reimbursements to cover the cost of counseling services or funeral expenses.

“The time is up,” Assistant D.A. Bode said. “Time has been a-wasting since January, when we went up to Albany with District Attorney Tierney. Albany needs to do something.”