Recently, renowned actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment, a needle reportedly protruding from his arm and numerous bags of heroin nearby. Authorities say they have launched a search for the person or persons who may have sold Hoffman the drugs on which he overdosed and quickly made a series of arrests.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling held prosecutors must prove the drug proximately caused the death of the victim in order to be held responsible for an overdose. In Burrage v. United States, such a penalty could only be imposed if prosecutors could prove that heroin, supplied by the alleged dealer, was the “but-for” the cause of Hoffman’s death.
This new standard of proof means that Birmingham drug dealer defense lawyers will more easily be able to argue against such harsh minimum mandatory. The case that birthed this new standard involved a man who was a long-time, avid drug user and another man, who sold him his last fix.
But really, it goes back even further than that – all the way to 1986, when the country was embroiled in a so-called “War on Drugs.” It was in this climate that federal legislators enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, 100 Stat. 3207. This was the law that redefined certain offender categories, increased the maximum penalties and set minimum penalties for many drug offenders – including those who would receive a “death enhancement.”
Under the Act, those who distributed Schedule I or Schedule II substances (those defined as the most addictive and dangerous) would receive a sentence ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment when there was a large-scale distribution. Medium-scale distribution offenses would carry a sentence of between 5 and 40 years. Smaller distributions could result in up to a 20-year-sentence.
Further, U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A)-(C) indicated that if a person’s distribution of a controlled substance resulted in the death of serious bodily injury of another person, the defendant was to face a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years behind bars. They could receive up to life imprisonment, plus they’d have to pay a substantial fine. States quickly followed with their own version of tougher penalties for those prosecutors sought to hold responsible for overdose deaths.
Perhaps the worst part of this rigid law was that prosecutors did not even have to prove that the drug that was distributed proximately caused the person’s death. All that had to be shown was that it was a contributing cause.
Enter the Burrage case. Again, here we have a man who struggled with addiction. On the day before he died, he reportedly consumed marijuana, oxycodone, hydrocodone, heroin and other drugs. All of these things were found in his system at reportedly high levels.
The defendant, Burrage, was alleged to have sold him the heroin, which was the last drug his wife had seen her husband use before she found him deceased several hours later.
At his trial, two medical experts testified that while heroin was a contributing cause in the addict’s death, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t have died anyway had he not used it because there was a dangerous combination of so many other drugs also in his system.
Still, Burrage was convicted and received the 20-year minimum mandatory.
While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld his conviction and his sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that there must be a “but-for” causation established in these cases.
The government had argued that such a standard shouldn’t be applicable in drug overdose cases because, in so many situations – including this one – addicts consume a combination of drugs. In fact, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that nearly half of all drug overdoses involved more than one drug.
However, the Supreme Court countered that such a permissive interpretation of the law was unfair, and that a person should only receive the enhancement in cases where it is found that the death resulted from the use of the unlawfully distributed drug – not from a combination of factors to which the drug use merely contributed.