While drug addiction has long been recognized as a societal ill, it’s been viewed through many different prisms over the last several decades.
As officials increasingly recognize it as a physical illness, as opposed to a behavioral condition, there has been a call to shift the way in which the criminal justice system approaches it. In many ways, this has been good. For example, Birmingham drug defense lawyers are often more successful in arguing for treatment alternatives, as opposed to lengthy jail or prison terms for drug-related offenses.
However, as the addicts are increasingly seen as not in control of their own actions, the hammer has fallen much more harshly on the drug suppliers, many of whom are increasingly being successfully prosecuted for homicide in instances where one of their customers has suffered a fatal overdose.
The issue of whether this is fair, specifically when the drug in question may not have been the sole and proximate cause of the death, was recently weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the federal case of Burrage v. United States.
The case is a prime example of prosecutorial overreach, as the defendant was sentenced to 20 years in prison for supplying the heroin that was in the system of a man who overdosed on a combination of drugs, resulting in his death.
Had the heroin been definitively determined to cause the addict’s death, we would have never heard of this case. However, the issue here is that the deceased had multiple drugs in his system. He’d been on a bender in advance of his court-ordered rehab stint. Medical examiners were not able to say with any certainty that the heroin caused his death. It may have contributed to his death, they said, but it could not be established as the but-for cause of it.
The trial judge in this case instructed the jury that the conviction for a charge of distribution of heroin resulting in death required prosecutors to prove that the defendant intentionally distributed the heroin and also that the heroin in question was a contributing cause of the death. A contributing cause would be a factor that, although not necessarily a primary cause, played a part in the death.
On this basis, the jury convicted.
Upon appeal, the defendant argued that this explanation of the statute is erroneous, and that a death “resulting” from the heroin would be one in which the heroin caused the death – not merely contributed to it.
The Supreme Court Justices, in their hearing of oral arguments in the case, appear to be siding with the defendant’s argument – though we won’t know for sure until a decision is rendered.
If the court determines that proof of but-for causation will be required in these cases, it will mean that prosecutors will have an even higher burden of proof. They will have to show that but for the drug in question, the death would not have occurred. That’s a much greater task than simply proving the drug was present at the time of death – as well it should be when an another person is facing the possibility of decades behind bars.