Judge skeptical of arguments in request for a gag order on Sonoma County DA

A ruling is expected by March 14 on the request for a gag order by attorneys for two parents who have been charged with murder ollowing the death of their toddler from acute fentanyl intoxication.|

Prosecutors argued Wednesday that any judge’s order preventing Sonoma County District Attorney Carla Rodriguez from publicizing false information about fentanyl would overstep the court’s authority by regulating an elected official’s speech.

The hearing before Judge Robert LaForge came in response to a request for a gag order on Rodriguez by attorneys representing two parents who have been charged with murder and child endangerment after their 15-month-old daughter died of acute fentanyl intoxication.

LaForge said he would issue a ruling by March 14.

Prosecutors believe parents Evan Frostick and Madison Bernard were fentanyl addicts who were careless in protecting their daughter, Charlotte, from the drug. The child was found dead in May 2022 with fentanyl powder strewn on a nearby nightstand, according to police testimony in the case.

Defense lawyers representing the pair asked LaForge for the gag order in January, after a series of news stories highlighted inaccuracies in a public-service campaign on fentanyl created by the DA’s office. The defense attorneys argued that the misinformation served to poison the pool of prospective Sonoma County jurors in the upcoming murder trial.

In pushing the decision until March, LaForge seemed, for the moment, disinclined to grant the defense attorneys’ request to order Rodriguez to avoid further misinformation, saying questions about the veracity of a broad public service campaign were beyond the scope of the murder trial. By the defense attorneys’ logic, he said, the DA’s campaign would “relate to every fentanyl case in this county.”

Prosecutors Wednesday told LaForge that Rodriguez was committed to providing accurate information about fentanyl, which, as they pointed out, continues to drive overdose deaths in Sonoma County and the nation. Rodriguez had committed to collaborating with public health experts for the creation of any future public messaging, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Tavenier said.

But defense attorneys argued the website continues to promote misinformation in the materials that do remain online, as the case heads toward a June trial.

The district attorney’s office paid Amaturo Sonoma Media Group $46,000 to create the contested ad campaign, according to public records obtained by Northern California Public Media. Amaturo is not affiliated with Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of The Press Democrat.

Paid for through a federal grant, two radio ads in particular, according to medical experts, included misinformation about fentanyl — the synthetic opioid that has driven waves of overdose deaths around the country. Rodriguez pulled down the two audio clips in question after reporting by Northern California Public Media and The Press Democrat. She said they never aired on the radio but instead were only available on a website linked to in newspaper and digital ads.

One of the ads contained a story similar to the death of Bernard and Frostick’s daughter. It featured a woman describing the death of her 6-year-old daughter after touching fentanyl on the ground in a public park. The episode is fictional, but experts say it is also based on an implausible premise too often propagated by law enforcement officials — the myth that people can become intoxicated or overdose on fentanyl merely by touching it.

Experts say the drug can’t enter the bloodstream by passing through the skin and worry that overblown fears of dying by merely touching fentanyl could give first responders or others pause when responding to a person actually in the midst of an overdose.

The defense attorneys argued Rodriguez had crossed the line into discussing the Frostick and Bernard when she noted to a Press Democrat reporter that children have died from fentanyl in Sonoma County.

“We’ve seen it here,” she said. “If a child is touching fentanyl and then they touch their eyes or their mouth they could die.”

Rodriguez also said in creating the ads they specifically sought to avoid any active cases her office was prosecuting.

Countering the defense’s arguments about influencing potential jurors, Tavenier said Wednesday that the agency’s analytics show very few people had actually gone to the ad campaign’s website, estimating that number was in the hundreds, at best.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on X (Twitter) @AndrewGraham88

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