When some of her cancer-stricken father's painkillers disappeared, Norma Hatfield suspected her mother's caregiver was the culprit. The caregiver was arrested later when more pills vanished.
But because of the way the law is written, the punishment wasn't as severe as the family had hoped. Since the suspect was caregiver for the mother, authorities couldn't use Kentucky's exploitation law to prosecute a theft from the father.
Now Kentucky lawmakers are considering a bill to enhance punishments in such cases by expanding the application of the exploitation law.
Hatfield watched as the House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill Wednesday. The Elizabethtown woman said afterward that such thefts are tied to the state's opioid addiction woes.
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"If it's happened in our house ... it's probably happening elsewhere," she said.
Rep. Jim DuPlessis said he drafted the bill after Hatfield reached out to him to recount what happened to her family. The Elizabethtown Republican said his bill would allow exploitation protections in state law to apply to other vulnerable people in the same home.
The gap in the current law tied the hands of prosecutors in the Hatfield family's case, he said.
Hatfield said the caregiver did receive jail time, but it was much less than would available if DuPlessis' bill becomes law.
DuPlessis said his bill would make it a felony — punishable by one to five years in prison — for caregivers to steal pills, whether from the people they're hired to care for or from others in the household.
Caregivers would face a stiffer penalty that carries more prison time if they steal more than five pills, or if it's a repeat offense, he said. The enhanced penalty for thefts of more pills is justified because that could signal an intent to sell the drugs, he said.
"This needs to be enhanced because of the predatory nature of the person who took advantage of somebody who could not take care of themselves," he said in an interview.
Some committee members said they agreed with the bill's intent, but voiced concerns that it would apply to a broad range of medications. They said it could result in someone facing a felony offense for stealing sleeping pills or even cold and cough medication.
DuPlessis said he was willing to narrow the bill's scope when it's heard later in the full House.
"The intent is to go after narcotics," he said. "And that's what people are stealing."