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Published April 05, 2011, 02:24 PM

ND Senate Approves Felony Charge for Drug Theft

Stealing a single prescription drug pill could earn the thief five years in prison under a bill that received final legislative approval Tuesday.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Stealing a single prescription drug pill could earn the thief five years in prison under a bill that received final legislative approval Tuesday.

The North Dakota Senate voted 33-14 to endorse the legislation, despite objections from the Senate's majority leader and a sponsor of the measure, who said she had changed her mind and described the bill as "a severe overreaction."

The bill makes it a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, to steal prescription drugs in any quantity, regardless of value. It now goes to Gov. Jack Dalrymple for his review.

Prosecutors pushed the measure because illegal possession of prescription drugs is already a felony, but stealing them could be a misdemeanor, with a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, if the stolen drugs' value is less than $250.

Sen. Spencer Berry, R-Fargo, who is a physician, said some prescription drugs, especially painkillers, have a "street price" that is much more than their cost if they are purchased legitimately.

"Many times they are worth, 10-, 20-, 30-fold what someone may pay for them," Berry said. "If someone gets access to them, or steals even one or two, it's very worthwhile to them to do so."

Some senators objected to the possibility of filing felony charges against someone who stole a few pills. Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, called the measure "a vast overreaction to the problem. I think there are other ways of ... framing the parameters of the crime."

Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, the Senate majority leader, called the penalty "just a little bit strong." Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, who was a Senate sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday she had changed her mind about it.

"If a person steals three pills, that can be five years in the state penitentiary," Sitte said. "I just think it's a severe overreaction."

Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, said a judge would decide how long anyone convicted under the bill would spend in prison. The legislation gives prosecutors and judges discretion in deciding how to handle an offense, he said.

"There are still some other judgments made for these situations, if you will, that don't seem to be very severe, and of course those things are taken into consideration," Nething said.

The bill is SB2241.

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