U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS ruling will make it tougher to get enhanced sentences for drug sales that result in deaths


A U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that received little attention will make it more difficult to hike the penalty for drug dealers in overdose deaths, according to at least one federal prosecutor.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a week before Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a mixture of drugs, the Associated Press reports. The decision (PDF), covered here by the New York Times, said a heroin dealer accused of selling heroin that contributed to the death of a customer cannot be convicted unless the drug was the “but for” cause of the overdose death. The federal law at issue imposed mandatory sentences “if death or serious bodily injury results from” drugs sold by the defendant. The case is Burrage v. United States.

Defense lawyers are already citing the decision, while some prosecutors are concerned. Tris Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, told AP that the decision will have some impact on federal drug prosecutions in overdose cases involving a cocktail of drugs. “We may not be able to meet the standard of proof in those cases,” Coffin said.

A U.S. Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the decision is a “big burden” on the government, which will need expert testimony showing a drug’s exact role in a user’s death. The ruling also makes it more difficult to use the law as a negotiating tool, the official said. “The 20-year mandatory minimum has been tremendously efficient in scaring the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain,” the official told AP.

Writing for the Volokh Conspiracy, law professor Paul Cassell of the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law proposes a solution that would help prosecutors. He says lawmakers should change the law to allow enhanced sentences for drug dealers who contribute to the mixture of drugs that cause a user’s death.

“My point here,” Cassell wrote, “is to ask whether, going forward, drug dealers like [Marcus] Burrage should be able to avoid enhanced penalties when those who ingest their drugs have also ingested other drugs.”

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