Democrats stalled five Republican-led bills to increase penalties for both violent crime in New Mexico and drug trafficking this week in the State House of Representatives, amid calls for the state to crack down on its crime problem.
House Bills 61, 60, 59, 58 and 57 were sponsored by Rep. Bill Rehm (R-31), a former narcotics officer, and a group of largely GOP cosponsors, but the bills were tabled Tuesday in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee after motions from Democrat members.
HB 60 would have increased penalties for fentanyl possession, establishing a scale of prison sentences based on the amount of the drug possessed, while HB 59 would make possessing a gun during drug trafficking a third-degree felony, and House Bill 57 would grant immunity from litigation or tort claims related to alleged damages or injury for merchants who apprehend shoplifters.
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House Bill 58 would have expanded the State's definition for "violent felonies," which result in life imprisonment, according to current sentencing laws, after three convictions, while removing the eligibility of parole in most cases.
House Bill 61 would increase sentencing for felons in possession of firearms.
The committee that voted to table each of Rehm's bills, meaning no action was taken and a separate vote was required to take them back up, was made up of four Democrats and two Republicans with votes mostly along party lines.
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'Deadly' fentanyl should garner tougher sentences, sponsor says
HB 60 would have required possession of 50 to 90 milligrams, or 25 to 49 pills, to incur a sentence increase by three years.
Possession of 100 to 149 mg, or 50 to 74 pills would see a sentence of five years added, and 150 mg or more, or 75 pills, would earn a sentence of seven years' incarceration.
Rehem characterized the bill as a measure to target dealers peddling in the dangerous but increasingly popular opioid, responsible for 39 percent of opioid-related drug overdoses in New Mexico, which account for two out of three overall overdoses, according to a June 2022 report from the New Mexico Department of Health.
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Fentanyl is known to be 50 times more potent than heroin, and 100 times stronger than morphine, with a 2 mg dose proving fatal, records show.
"Fentanyl is so dangerous that six out of 10 pills have a lethal dose of fentanyl in them. Basically, one out of every four users will die of an overdose," Rehm said in an interview with the Current-Argus.
"This legislation is really going after the drug dealer."
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He said he was open to negotiating the amounts and sentence enhancement specified in the bill.
"We either take some kind of action to disincentivize the distribution, or I hate to it this way, we increase the line item at the (Office of the Medical Investigator) for body bags," Rehm said before the committee.
An analysis from the Legislative Finance Committee reported HB 60 would result in more incarcerations, which averaged about $55,000 per inmate in New Mexico in Fiscal Year 2022.
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But the report also contended increasing penalties that result from conviction was shown to do little to deter crime, and that resources should be put toward solving crimes and convicting offenders.
"Research shows the certainty of being caught is a more powerful deterrent to crime than severity of punishment, and although laws and policies designed to deter crime focus mainly on increasing the severity of the punishment, this does little to deter criminals because most know little about sanctions for specific crimes," read the report.
Rep. Andrea Romero (D-46) said this meant the higher criminal penalties included in the bill were unlikely to deter fentanyl possession.
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"The criminalization of this possession, in any of the analysis that we've received about how to address this problem, this isn't how to do that," she said.
Bill creates fear of 'excessive force' during hearing
During his presentation to lawmakers, Rehm contended HB 57 was not intended to allow "excessive force" be used against shoplifters, but opponents of the legislation argued the language was too broad to prevent it.
"I don't want them using excessive force. Nowhere in this bill does it allow or sanction excessive force," Rehm said during the committee hearing.
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But Chair Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-37) responded that the bill's language was too broad to define reasonable force and could result in alleged thieves being injured.
"Because there's not really a clear definition of reasonable in this, that could be something that goes above and beyond because the person wouldn't be held accountable," she said. "I think that's the problem I have with this bill."
'Political tactics' prevent progress on crime, GOP says
Rehm criticized Democrats on the committee for blocking efforts he said would seek to address growing crime problems throughout New Mexico.
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"Today the progressives made clear that they are unwilling to lock up felons with illegal firearms, but they are willing to make felons out of law-abiding gun owners," Rehm said in a statement following the votes to table his bills.
He said state lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently voiced the need for policy to reduce crime in New Mexico, but Tuesday's vote got in the way of progress.
"Just days ago, we joined the Governor in her office, with statewide media, for productive talks about bipartisan action against crime and today's disappointing votes reveal that House Democrats on the House Consumer & Public Affairs committee care little about improving public safety in meaningful ways," Rehm said.
"These political tactics are highly frustrating to the many victims of crime that spend their personal time advocating in Santa Fe for a safer New Mexico."
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: GOP bills on fentanyl, drug trafficking in New Mexico blocked by Dems