U.S. Supreme Court

Justices mull proof required under law that increases drug-dealer sentence for overdose death

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday considered the proof needed to enhance a drug dealer’s sentence when a customer dies.

The issue is whether prosecutors must prove the drug sold was the only cause of death, or whether it is enough to prove it was a factor in the death. The New York Times, the Washington Post and SCOTUSblog covered the arguments.

Lawyer Angela Campbell, who represents accused drug dealer Marcus Andrew Burrage, argued there must be but-for causation. Burrage’s drug client, Joshua Banka, died after buying a gram of heroin from Burrage. He used the heroin, OxyContin, marijuana and prescription drugs before his death in 2010.

Experts who testified at trial said the heroin contributed to Banka’s death. Burrage was charged with distribution of heroin resulting in death, a federal crime that carries a minimum 20-year penalty.

The government lawyer, Benjamin Horwich, argued that generally it was enough to show that the drug contributed to the death. Requiring a but-for test, he said, could mean that “nothing and nobody was the cause of the victim’s death.”

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