By Terri Jo Neff |
When video went viral this month of a Florida police officer needing three doses of Narcan after losing consciousness when exposed to fentanyl during a routine traffic stop, it renewed attention to the dangers the deadly drug poses to public safety and healthcare workers.
But protocols for handling fentanyl and other potentially toxic evidence are months from approved within Arizona’s judicial system, even though there are currently hundreds of ongoing fentanyl-related criminal cases in the state’s courts.
Court administrators and presiding judges across Arizona have expressed concerns about safety protocols since 2020 when the number of prosecutions involving the drug started to rise. But it was not until this June that Chief Justice Robert Brutinel of the Arizona Supreme Court established a taskforce to create guidelines for handling fentanyl and other toxic evidence in courthouses.
The Fentanyl and Toxic Evidence Taskforce was given a Dec. 31 deadline to file its report and recommendations. However, the 11 members of the taskforce notified Brutinel in November that they need more time.
As a result, the report’s deadline has been extended to March 31, 2023.
Guidelines are necessary, Brutinel noted in June, due to the “significant rise” of overdoses associated with fentanyl, as well as the corresponding rise in the number of cases in which fentanyl is part of the evidence against a defendant.
“Accordingly, there is the potential risk that the drug evidence and other toxic evidence in these cases will need to be handled in the courthouse,” the chief justice noted, adding that protocols for dealing with fentanyl exposure and for handling the drug is already developed for some industries. “There has been little guidance, however, issued for court personnel who may have to handle packaged evidence of fentanyl, carfentanil, their analogs, or other toxic evidence.”
The chief justice ordered the 2019 National Judicial Opioid Task Force guidelines be used by the taskforce as a reference to address several issues:
- Whether such drugs should be inspected and approved by designated court personnel before being allowed into a courthouse
- Whether these packaged drugs must always remain in the possession of law enforcement personnel, except by approval of the court
- Whether the drugs should ever be handled by court personnel or others during a judicial proceeding, such as attorneys, witnesses, court clerks, and jurors
- Whether such drugs should remain in a courthouse or court-related facility during non-business hours
- What safety policies should be established for the handling of fentanyl evidence
- Whether courthouse personnel should be trained to address possible exposure to fentanyl and other toxic evidence and to properly identify opioid toxicity
- Whether Naloxone (Narcan) should be kept in courthouses and other court-related facilities for emergencies and whether any court personnel should be trained in its administration.
One consideration for the taskforce is the need to balance safety concerns for court personnel and members of the public who may be exposed to the drugs during a judicial proceeding against the rights of defendants or even a victim in judicial proceedings to due process and a fair trial, Brutinel noted.