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Prosecutors have five-item legislative wish list

Hank Hayes • Updated Feb 26, 2018 at 12:22 PM

KINGSPORT — Northeast Tennessee prosecutors want at least five things from the General Assembly this year.

One of those things they ask for just about every year.

“We want more pay for our assistants (attorneys general) and we want more assistants,” Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus said during a meeting between prosecutors and the Times News Editorial Board. “The legislature has given us a lot of work and we’ve taken it on. Last year we had that elder abuse package. … That means we have to collect statistics and prosecute the cases. The other thing we’ve done is we are now investigating these drug overdose deaths. … Family members want to know ‘how did this happen’ and ‘who provided (the drugs) to them?’ Plus we have an avalanche of crime generated by these drugs.”

The second thing is increasing the penalty for making, selling and delivering fentanyl and treating the drug the same as cocaine or methamphetamine for “B” felonies or heroin for “A” felonies.

“Fentanyl is punished more like marijuana now,” Staubus observed. “In Sullivan County, we’ve had two to three deaths per week in 2018 and almost all of them were fentanyl or heroin. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. If a drug dog sniffs it, it could kill him. It only takes like a grain of fentanyl. … People are putting it in marijuana.

“We need to punish it like we do heroin, cocaine and meth.”

The third thing is a strengthening of the state’s elder and vulnerable adult protections, including making rape an “aggravated” act in certain cases and adding elder abuse as a qualifying felony for felony murder. Lawmakers passed a law last year requiring prosecutors to organize Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigation Teams to respond to elder abuse.

“It’s important our vulnerable and elderly adults are protected,” said District Attorney General Dan Armstrong. “They need to be a special class. They can’t protect themselves.”

The fourth thing they want would broaden the second-degree murder law from deaths due to distributing all schedules of drugs.

“If you sell heroin, cocaine and somebody dies, that’s second-degree murder,” Staubus noted. “We reviewed autopsies of drug deaths and found more should be prosecuted. If they kill somebody, should they get a misdemeanor? We want to add more time.”

The fifth thing is adding subjective language to a sexual exploitation of a child law — a response to a case that came out of a criminal appeals court.

Armstrong said of the case: “A father was secretly videotaping a daughter and her friends, teenagers, in various states of undress. He was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, but the Court of Criminal Appeals vacated those convictions on the basis that our law requires the children be engaged in some kind of sexual activity and made no provision that it was done for the sexual gratification of the viewer. What we’ve asked the legislature to do is put that subjective intent in there.”

Lastly, prosecutors want to see if lawmakers will help them fight the opioid crisis.

“The question is: How committed is the legislature to substantively solving the opioid problem?” Staubus asked. “I know we want to be low taxes and we want to be careful about our spending. … Are you going to spend a little money to save more money in the long run? How do you put a price tag on these lives?”

District Attorney General Tony Clark noted: “The higher percentage of our DUIs now are drug-related, not alcohol. … The last four homicides in my district have been drug related. … You look at everything we do, it stems from the drug epidemic … pot, pills, the opiates.”

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