Two Humboldt County men have pled guilty in Mendocino County to transporting fentanyl purchased in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
On February 11, 2022, a Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office deputy observed a Ford Mustang occupied by Eureka men, 70-year-old Robin Bradshaw and 30-year-old Tyler Trujillo, make abrupt maneuvers that suggested the pair were evading law enforcement. A traffic stop ensued and the men threw the half-pound of fentanyl down a nearby embankment. On May 3, the pair were sentenced to eight years in state prison.
In yesterday’s Facebook post, Mendocino County District Attorney Dave Eyster noted that the convergence of Proposition 57 and emergency provisions adopted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could reduce the traffickers’ prison sentence by as much as 66.6% of their sentence. This means, for example, an offender sentenced to ten years could see their total prison time reduced to four years.
The Mendocino/Humboldt County corridor has been inundated with fentanyl. Multiple law enforcement agencies stated that the synthetic opioid is being bought within San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and brought to North Coast counties where overdoses have become part of the landscape.
According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department, “In 2020, the county saw 11 Fentanyl related deaths. In 2021, there were 33 Fentanyl related deaths, accounting for almost 10% of all deaths recorded by the Humboldt County Coroner’s Office for the year.”
According to the California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard, in 2020 Mendocino County experienced 25.8 opioid overdose deaths for every 100,000 residents. Mendocino County ranks in the state’s top 25% for it opiod overdose death rate.
As law enforcement works to try to cut off the supply, overdoses are rising and local leaders are working to identify the forces that have led to fentanyl taking root in the Emerald Triangle.
Fentanyl has made its way into Mendocino County’s communities. Dozens of residents have been arrested in possession of the narcotic. Native American communities in Round Valley and Lake County have experienced rashes of overdoses from the drug. Narcan is now a standard piece of equipment in any first responders toolkit.
Data presented by the California Department of Public Health’s Overdose Surveillance dashboard shows Mendocino County has experienced a rise in fentanyl deaths since the beginning of 2019 and remains on an upward trajectory.
Humboldt County has also experienced a rise in fentanyl deaths interestingly also beginning in 2019.
A map of California that displays the distribution of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2020 across the state shows Mendocino and Sonoma Counties have some of the highest rates of opioid deaths in the state when adjusted for population.
The Center for Disease Control determined in March 2021 that there were five states where rural counties saw higher rates of drug overdoses than urban areas: Connecticut, North Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and California.
As fentanyl ravages the North Coast, local leaders are looking to find structural deficiencies that are enabling the drug’s distribution. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors sent San Francisco’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin a call to action, demanding his agency seek higher penalties against those in his jurisdiction trafficking or selling the narcotic.
They argued Boudin’s charging and sentencing practices not only exacerbated the opioid epidemic in San Francisco but surrounding counties. The letter stated Humboldt County would not sit “idly by while this drug pours into our county from the Tenderloin.” They went as far as to threaten litigation: “If we cannot reach an acceptable solution, we may consider a legal remedy. We look forward to hearing from your office on this most important issue.”
Mendocino County’s Board of Supervisors has not touched on the fentanyl issue. Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall and his agency have encountered the synthetic opioid in a number of contexts such as responding to multiple overdoses just in the last few months, having a corrections officer exposed to the drug, and the usual enforcement role their agency serves.
District Attorney Eyster’s press release could very well be the first occurrence of a Mendocino County official expressing concerns about larger, systemic barriers to punishing those peddling the dangerous drug.
Rather than point toward the prosecutorial practices like the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, DA Eyster identifies voter-approved Proposition 57 as an impediment to punishment.
In 2016 voters approved Proposition 57, packaged as a vehicle for criminal justice reform allowing non-violent offenders to be released from state prison once they served their full sentence for primary criminal offenses, rather than serving extra time for sentencing enhancements often given to repeat offenders.
Opponents of the proposition expressed concern that potentially dangerous offenders could be released into the public due to the improper classification of crimes as non-violent.
In DA Eyster’s press release, he paints a detailed picture of the potential lethality of the fentanyl confiscated by Mendocino County deputies: “a single 2-milligram dose of fentanyl (there are 226,796 milligrams in a half pound of this synthetic opioid) is lethal for most people, meaning that these two crooks were carrying enough fentanyl back to Eureka to overdose and kill up to 113,398 people.” His math checks out. 2 milligrams is considered the standard lethal dose of the drug corroborated by the CDC, DEA, and other health care agencies.
Considering the drug’s potential lethality, DA Eyster seems to be making the case that the characterization of these men’s crimes as “non-violent” is inaccurate. DA Eyster’s suggestion is not without precedent. California has seen the District Attorney of Riverside, Placer, San Bernadino, and Orange Counties either charge fentanyl dealers with murder when the product results in the death of a customer or announced intentions to do so.
DA Eyster’s concerns about shorter sentences are amplified by emergency provisions adopted by the California Department of Corrections adopted in May 2021. A press release issued by the CDCR stated that these changes were not “an early release program, and these changes do not result in the automatic release of an incarcerated individual.”
Reporter Katy Grimes interviewed California Attorney General Candidate and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert who argued these provisions would result in the early release of violent offenders and represent the CDCR’s failure to allow the people of California a voice in the decision-making.
In December 2021, Schubert and twenty-seven other district attorneys (absent from that list is Mendocino County’s own Dave Eyster) were granted a Temporary Restraining Order halting efforts of the CDCR to enact these emergency guidelines.
District Attorney Schubert said that the CDCR intended to increase the “good conduct credit” afforded to offenders from 50% to 66.6% of their total prison sentence for inmates with previous serious or violent offenses.
District Attorney Schubert said these regulations would result in two-thirds time off sentences for offenders convicted of “domestic violence, human trafficking, animal cruelty, and possession of weapons by individuals who have previous convictions for serious and violent felonies.” She added, “Most people would be surprised to learn that under California law, crimes like felony domestic violence and human trafficking are not ‘violent’ felonies.”
District Attorney Schubert argued these unilateral decisions by CDCR show the agency believes, “they can increase conduct credits by 100% without ever giving victims and the public the right to meaningful participation in this process.”
As our legislators and local leaders work towards solving the fentanyl problem, overdoses continue to rise. The American Medical Association released a report on May 12, 2022, entitled “Nation’s Drug-Related Overdose and Death Epidemic Continues to Worsen“. Our communities might be emerging from the COVID-19 epidemic, but the grip of addiction is getting tighter.
For those that might read this who personally suffer from addiction or are concerned for a loved one falling into addiction, remember that treatment can help and is available:
- Mendocino County
- Contact Behavioral Health and Recovery Services at 1(855)765-9703.
- Humboldt County
- Contact the Humboldt County Substance Use Disorder Hotline at 1-855-765-9703
- Trinity County
- Contact Alcohol and Other Drug Service at (530)623-1362
- Lake County
- Contact the Substance Use Disorder Services at 1(800)900-2075