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Law That Allows Citizens To Sue Drug Dealers For Damages Moves Forward In California

Thursday, 18 July 1996

The California state Senate has unanimously approved a sweeping bill (S.B. 1754) that would allow private parties to sue drug dealers for damages even if the defendant had nothing to do with the specific drugs or incident that caused the damage.

Under the Drug Dealer Liability Act, introduced by Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) and co-sponsored by Attorney General Dan Lungren, drug dealers could be sued in civil court for any damages caused by the same kind of drug elsewhere in the same city or county, regardless of who actually furnished it, using a radical, new "market participation" liability doctrine. For example, under the provisions of a similar law in Michigan, dealers who can be shown to have sold 650 grams of a controlled substance are liable for injuries throughout the state, while those who sold less than 50 grams can be held liable for injuries in the county where the sales occurred.

Those allowed to sue under the California proposal would include: parents or family members of users; employers of users; medical facilities, insurers, or other institutions that fund drug treatment programs; individuals exposed in utero to an illegal substance; and persons injured as a result of the willful, reckless, or negligent actions of an individual substance user.

"It's a way of fighting [drug dealers] by hitting them right in the pocket," said actor Carroll O'Connor, who has lobbied for the measure.

Defendants could be sued if they (1) provided the drug or (2) had "as a pattern" participated in the market for that drug within the same city or county. The latter is defined to mean that they provided the same illicit drug on at least two instances, with at least one conviction. Cultivation of under 25 marijuana plants would not count as an offense.

"When is enough enough?" asked Mark Kappelhoff, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C., in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Kappelhoff maintained that adding civil judgments to criminal prosecution and civil forfeiture could be tantamount to constitutionally cruel or unusual punishment or double jeopardy.

The California state assembly is expected to approve the measure by the end of August.

For more information, please contact Dale Gieringer of California NORML at (415) 563-5858.