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March 10, 2018

Trump Administration reportedly looking (seriously?) at the death penalty for serious drug dealers

In reported in prior posts here and here, Prez Trump has reportedly talked privately about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and has talked publicly about using the "ultimate penalty" to address drug problems. Now according to this new Washington Post article, headlined "Trump administration studies seeking the death penalty for drug dealers," these musings by President Trump are now a policy proposal being seriously examined by the administration:

The Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that the White House wants to make a strong statement in addressing the opioid crisis.

President Trump last week suggested executing drug dealers as a way to make a dent in opioid addiction. Opioids killed nearly 64,000 people in 2016, and the crisis is straining local health and emergency services.

People familiar with the discussions said that the president’s Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice are studying potential policy changes and that a final announcement could come within weeks. The White House has said one approach it might take is to make trafficking large quantities of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — a capital crime because even small amounts of the drug can be fatal. White House officials also are studying tougher noncapital penalties for large-scale dealers.

Trump said last week that the administration would soon roll out unspecified “strong” policies on opioids. White House officials said Trump has privately expressed interest in Singapore’s policy of executing drug dealers. “Some countries have a very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty, and they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said during an appearance at a White House summit on opioids last week.

Trump also has endorsed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to the issue; Duterte’s “drug war” has led to the deaths of thousands of people by extrajudicial police killings. Last year, Trump praised Duterte in a phone call for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the New York Times. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, is leading much of the work on opioids for the White House. Singaporean representatives have briefed senior White House officials on their country’s drug policies, which include treatment and education, but also the death penalty, and they provided a PowerPoint presentation on that country’s laws.

Singapore’s model is more in line with the administration’s goals for drug policy than some other countries, a senior administration official said. “That is seen as the holistic approach that approximates what this White House is trying to do,” a senior administration official said....

Federal law currently allows for the death penalty to be applied in four types of drug-related cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center: murder committed during a drug-related drive-by shooting, murder committed with the use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, murder related to drug trafficking and the death of a law enforcement officer that relates to drugs.

Peter H. Meyers, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, said he doesn’t agree with the idea of adding more capital crimes for drug dealers, but he said it could be a legal approach: “It very likely would be constitutional if they want to do it.”

The administration’s directives come as prosecutors nationwide are cracking down on higher-level drug dealers and law enforcement officials are looking at increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking and dealing. But at the same time, public health officials — including those in the Trump administration — and many in law enforcement are emphasizing treatment rather than punitive measures for low-level users and those addicted to drugs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties for drug offenses.  The Department of Justice said last year it will aggressively prosecute traffickers of any fentanyl-related substance.

If (when?) we see a serious formal death penalty proposal for drug dealers, I will have a lot more to say on the topic. For now, I will be content with three "hot takes" (with number 3 to get a lot more attention if this discourse continues):

1. It is not at all clear that death sentences for drug dealers, even for those whose drugs cause multiple deaths, would be constitutional; it is entirely clear that the issue would be litigated extensively and would have to be definitively decided by the US Supreme Court.

2. If Prez Trump is truly interested in "executing drug dealers" rather than just sending them to death row, he needs to get his Justice Department to get serious about trying to actually execute some of the five dozens murderers languishing  on federal death row (some of whom have been on federal death row for two decades or longer).  

3. If the White House (and/or Attorney General Sessions) is seriously interested in a legislative proposal to make the "worst of the worst" drug dealers eligible for the death penalty, I would seriously urge Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley to consider adding the proposal to his Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act as part of an effort to get the White House and AG Sessions to support that bill.  Even if drafted broadly, any federal "death penalty for drug dealers" law would likely only impact a few dozen cases per year, whereas the SRCA will impact tens of thousands of cases every year.  And the SRCA could help tens of thousands of least serious drug offenders while any death penalty bill would impact only the most serious drug offenders.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Not long after this posting, Prez Trump gave a speech in Pennsylvania that, as reported in this new Washington Post piece, covered this ground and received a positive response for the audience:

President Trump on Saturday again called for enacting the death penalty for drug dealers during a rally meant to bolster a struggling GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat here. During the campaign event in this conservative western Pennsylvania district, the president also veered off into a list of other topics, including North Korea, his distaste for the news media and his own election victory 16 months ago.

Trump said that allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers — an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping — is “a discussion we have to start thinking about. I don’t know if this country’s ready for it.”

“Do you think the drug dealers who kill thousands of people during their lifetime, do you think they care who’s on a blue-ribbon committee?” Trump asked. “The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time.”

It was not the first time Trump had suggested executing drug dealers. Earlier this month, he described it as a way to fight the opioid epidemic. And on Friday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was considering policy changes to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

But on Saturday his call for executing drug dealers got some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. As Trump spoke about policies on the issue in China and Singapore, dozens of people nodded their heads in agreement. “We love Trump,” one man yelled. A woman shouted: “Pass it!”

March 10, 2018 at 06:51 PM | Permalink


Trump is a weak leader and a NYC lib. He needs to go full Duterte. He needs to immunize public self help, and to reward it with $10000 a scalp of any violent criminal. The unemployed could supplement their incomes killing the lawyer client.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 10, 2018 11:47:33 PM

The more that Trump panders to his base with his idea of executing drug dealers, the more likely it is that there would be a significant impact on the selection process in capital cases.

I think defense counsel would be entitled to know if a juror subscribes to President Trump's notion that a person convicted of dealing drugs should be executed. If the juror agrees, then they would be removed from the jury for cause. The consequences would be longer jury selections and more jurors who would automatically impose a death sentence would be removed from the jury. Sometimes it is very difficult to discover which jurors believe in an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth.

I think it could also lead to "individual void dire." Meaning only one juror is questioned at a time and the remainder of the panel is removed from the courtroom.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Mar 11, 2018 10:57:25 PM

Trump is too dumb to realize that there ALREADY IS a drug dealer death penalty: 18 USC 3591(b)(1). The problem is not statutory, it is constitutional: Kennedy v. Louisiana strongly suggests, if it does not in fact hold, that there can be no DP for non-homicide offenses.

Posted by: hgd | Mar 12, 2018 12:50:59 AM

Trying to divine federal policy from anything Trump says is a fool's errand. He doesn't set policy, or even especially care about it. That's become obvious. Today it's the death penalty for drug dealers, tomorrow it'll be a law requiring people to say the Pledge of Allegiance, then something else. It's all BS, just ignore it.

Posted by: vache sacree | Mar 12, 2018 12:52:22 PM

Trump is a lying sack. It ought to be illegal for a politician to lie. Why do people think that is acceptable?

Anyway, forget Trump and all the other idiots who can never harass or try to control people too much. There is no such thing as too much control in their little minds.

No drug should be illegal. It's not working anyway. It is creating big criminal business for drug cartels though. U.S. governments are partners in that illegal business and just about as guilty. They love that business so they can play their war games "fighting" it. And makin Merika "safe", of course. F them.

Let's go with some personal accountability for a change. Let's make America an actual free country. It is not your business in the slightest what your neighbor decides to put into his or her own body. Not your business at all. It should not be illegal for him/her to ingest anything. Now if he/she crosses a line that interferes with you, then we can arrest them. But just for taking drugs? Nope.

If we are keeping drugs illegal then I'm going to have to insist that we outlaw potato chips and other things that really, really kill people. Let's surely not forget tobacco and alcohol too.

Tell the big government drug people to shove it. Anyone who supports "tough on drugs" needs to be voted out of government ASAP.

Posted by: FRegistryTerrorists | Mar 12, 2018 6:46:38 PM

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