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Supreme Court overturns Conviction for Heroin Distribution Charge Resulting in Death

Under the Controlled Substances Act, distributing heroin that results in death carries a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years, along with a "substantial fine," under what is commonly called the "Len Bias Act."
 
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    February 14, 2014 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Supreme Court overturns Conviction for Heroin Distribution Charge Resulting in Death

While all drug distribution charges carry serious repercussions, there is a particularly high risk for heroin sales since there is a high risk of enhanced penalties when an "end" user overdoses from use of the drug. Both federal and state laws view heroin as a drug with no medicinal benefit and a high potential for abuse (a Schedule I substance). The penalties for its distribution reflect that view. Under federal law, a large-scale distributor of heroin may face anywhere from 10 years to life in prison. But when a user dies from overdosing on a drug obtained illegally, the penalties increase even more. Under the Controlled Substances Act, distributing heroin that results in death carries a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years, along with a "substantial fine," under what is commonly called the "Len Bias Act."

Supreme Court issues recent opinion on mandatory minimum sentence

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an opinion regarding how a jury is to determine whether the distribution of heroin was the cause of an overdose death. While the case arose out of Iowa, it involved federal law and so is applicable throughout the country for those charged with a federal drug crime.

At issue was whether one distributor's sale of heroin "resulted in" the death of the person it was sold to. The deceased user had several drugs in his system at the time of death, including heroin, codeine, alprazolam and oxycodone. At trial, a medical expert testified that the heroin was a contributing factor to the resulting death, and that the user's death would have been "very less likely" had heroin not been in his system. However, she could not say with certainty that the user would have lived if heroin had been absent from the mixed drugs in the user's system.

"But-for" causality

At trial in District Court, the jury was instructed to find the defendant guilty of heroin distribution with resulting death if "the heroin distributed by the Defendant was a contributing cause of [the defendant's] death." The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this jury instruction.

On appeal, however, the Supreme Court ultimately disagreed. Instead, it found that the jury should have been instructed to use a "but-for" causation to convict the defendant. That is, instead of merely contributing to the death of the user, in order to convict the jury should have found that "but-for" the heroin distribution and subsequent use, the user would have lived. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, held that Congress could have imposed a mandatory minimum "when the underlying crime 'contributes to' death or serious bodily injury, as five States have done." Instead, it chose "language that imports but-for causality."

Because the jury did not receive proper instruction in the law, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to lower court to re-try in accordance with its ruling.

Legal help matters

Criminal law strives to paint everything in black-and-white. However, life is full of gray areas, and whether a person is guilty of a certain crime can depend on a number of factors, such as the intent of the defendant, the causality of his or her actions, and other circumstances. People accused of serious crimes like federal drug distribution charges should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure all circumstances are taken into account throughout legal proceedings.

Article provided by Steven J Sherlag, P.C.
Visit us at www.sherlaglaw.com



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