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Philip Seymour Hoffman Heroin Dealers and the United States Supreme Court: Recent Opinion Makes It Harder to Convict Drug Dealers for Heroin Death Under Federal Law

Philip Seymour Hoffman drug dealers rejoice! The United States Supreme Court has released a new decision that defines a new standard for “causation” in a heroin death case. The High Court interprets the “resulted in the death” language of 21 U.S.C. 841 (the “Controlled Substances Act”) to really mean that it’s a “but for” cause NOT merely a “contributing” cause (which is what the federal prosecutors like to think).

burrageBottom line, this new Supreme Court ruling is good news for heroin dealers facing federal authorities wanting to convict them for the death of a heroin addict. It will likely impact the prosecution of any heroin supplier to Philip Seymour Hoffman, if any such person is ever charged.

Here’s why this is important:

U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Rosemond and Burrage

Last fall, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases that deal with how much evidence a federal prosecutor needs to bring to trial in order to convict a defendant of federal criminal offenses: one is perhaps more interesting to the public right now, given the Philip Seymour Hoffman tragedy, than the other. In the case of Rosemond v. United States, the controversy deals with the issue of Justus Rosemond being convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence on evidence of abetting the use of a firearm during drug trafficking.

Here’s the full legal issue before the Court:

Whether the offense of aiding and abetting the use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A) and 2, requires proof of (i) intentional facilitation or encouragement of the use of the firearm, as held by the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, or (ii) simple knowledge that the principal used a firearm during a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime in which the defendant also participated, as held by the Sixth, Tenth, and District of Columbia Circuits.

Heroin Drug Dealer and Heroin Addict’s Death: the Burrage Case

In the case of Burrage v. United States, the High Court had before it a case where a man died from a heroin overdose and the federal prosecutors had sought to bring the man who sold the heroin to him to justice for the man’s death. Sound familiar?

Sure it does. We’re reading lots of media coverage of a man named Robert Vineberg who has been arrested for drug possession and whom many assume to be the person who supplied heroin to Philip Seymour Hoffman (though there is NO EVIDENCE of this fact).

They ruled in this case on January 27, 2014, just days before the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The federal prosecutors in this Iowa case argued that Marcus Burrage should be convicted for distributing the heroin that led to the death of a drug addict, and they won. Marcus Burrage was convicted in a federal trial court for heroin death (20 year sentence) as well as selling heroin (another 20 year sentence) and the conviction was upheld on appeal to the circuit appellate court. Under federal law, if the heroin sold by the federal defendant results in “death or serious bodily injury” to the user, then federal law allows a mandatory minimum 20 year sentence in a federal penal institution.

Burrage kept fighting, though: his Petition for Writ of Certiorari was filed with the Supreme Court shortly after the Eighth Circuit failed to overturn the trial court.

Burrage’s position was that the federal government has to show that the heroin sold to the user was more than a possible cause of his death. There was no dispute that Joshua Banka died in November 2009. The facts, however, showed that Joshua Banka did more than take a single heroin dose.

From the admitted trial evidence, we know that before Marcus Burrage sold heroin to Joshua Banka, Mr. Banka (a known drug user) had been using a lot of drugs, all different kinds of drugs in fact. (The Supreme Court described it as Banka being on an “extended drug binge.”)

From the opinion:

Joshua Banka, a long-time drug user, died on April 15, 2010, following an extended drug binge. The episode began on the morning of April 14, when Banka smoked marijuana at a former roommate’s home. Banka stole oxycodone pills from the roommate before departing and later crushed, cooked, and injected the oxycodone. Banka and his wife, Tammy Noragon Banka (Noragon), then met with petitioner Marcus Burrage and purchased one gram of heroin from him. Banka immediately cooked and in­jected some of the heroin and, after returning home, in­jected more heroin between midnight and 1 a.m. on April 15. Noragon went to sleep at around 5 a.m., shortly after witnessing Banka prepare another batch of heroin. When Noragon woke up a few hours later, she found Banka dead in the bathroom and called 911. A search of the couple’s home and car turned up syringes, 0.59 grams of heroin,alprazolam and clonazepam tablets, oxycodone pills, a bottle of hydrocodone, and other drugs.

Key here is that the doctors could not definitively state that “but for” the heroin that Marcus Burrage sold Joshua Banka, Mr. Banka would have lived. Burrage’s jury was instructed at trial that a conviction could be accomplished based upon a finding that the heroin sold by Burrage to Banka “contributed to” Banka’s death. This was not correct, reports the United States Supreme Court.

Burrage Result: Mandatory Minimum 20 Year Sentence in Heroin Death Case Not as Easily for Prosecutors To Achieve Now

The United States Supreme Court ruled as follows, in an unanimous decision, for the case of Burrage v. United States, reversing and remanding Mr. Burrage’s case back to the lower court:

At least when the use of a drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable for penalty enhancement under the penalty enhancement provision of the Controlled Substance Act unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury.


One Last Warning: Not All States are The Same

This new opinion is important to all criminal defense lawyers, and their clients, as it curtails the ability of the federal prosecutors to get “heroin death” sentences unless they have clear evidence tying the cause of death to the drug at issue. Under the Controlled Substances Act, there is a “but for” evidence hurdle for the federal prosecution which is harder to overcome than the “contributing cause” hurdle used in the past.

Following Burrage, the U.S. prosecution in any Philip Seymour Hoffman case has to show that “but for” that dealer’s supply of heroin to Hoffman, he would have lived. That’s a harder case for the federal prosecutor.

However, state laws also come into play here. What is great news in Iowa, for instance, isn’t so great up in Maine (or Texas or Alabama or Arkansas). For more, check out the discussion about Burrage at the Harmless Error Blog and the particular state statutes mentioned on page 12 of the slip opinion.


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