US Supreme Court determining when drugs “result in” death

As part of the “War on Drugs,” in 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a provision of which added a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison in addition to the sentence a person received for trafficking drugs if a person dies as a result of using the drugs that the person sold. In November 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Burrage v. U.S., a case that deals with what the state must show to prove that selling drugs resulted in a person’s death in order to trigger the sentence enhancement.

What does it mean to cause a death?

The case stems from the conviction of a man on charges of selling heroin. The man to whom he sold the drugs died after taking a combination of drugs, and the seller was convicted of drug trafficking and distribution that results in death. At his trial, the judge instructed the jury that in order to convict the man of distributing heroin that results in death, the state must show that the man knew that the substance was heroin, that the man intentionally distributed it and that the heroin was a contributing factor another’s death. The judge also noted that a contributing factor need not be the primary cause of death, but something that played a part in death. The jury convicted the man, and he received 20 years in prison for distributing heroin and an additional 20 years because it resulted in another’s death.

Insufficient evidence to convict

The man appealed the conviction on the basis that the law required the state prove that the drug use was either an independently sufficient cause of another’s death or that the drug use was a “but-for” cause of another’s death in order to trigger the sentence enhancement. In this case, the jury instruction that the judge gave allowed the jury to convict him on the basis of the drugs “contributing” to another’s death, which the man argued was a lower standard than the law required.

He also argued that there was insufficient evidence to show that the heroin he sold was the only drug that killed the user, since the two doctors who testified for the state could not say for certain that if the user had not included heroin in the mixture of drugs he took that he would have lived.

The state argued that the trial court’s instructions were correct and that Congress intended the law to broadly applied.

Speak with an attorney

As the Burrage case demonstrates, convictions for drug offenses carry stiff penalties. With so much at stake, it is crucial that those who are facing drug offense charges have the assistance of a skilled attorney to help defend their rights through the process. If you are facing drug offense charges, talk to a seasoned criminal defense attorney with a proven record of successfully defending clients against drug offense charges.