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Philip Seymour Hoffman Killed Himself: Predicting the Arrest and Conviction of the Drug Dealers Who Sold Hoffman the Heroin

question mark, public domain, clip artPhilip Seymour Hoffman killed himself. Hoffman became addicted to a substance knowing that he could die using it.  We know from the continuing, extensive, international news coverage of Hoffman’s death on Super Bowl Sunday that the talented actor first used heroin in his early 20s and after avoiding the drug for over 20 years, Hoffman returned to buying and using heroin sometime in the past few months.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Knew Heroin Could Kill Him

Philip Seymour Hoffman knew that heroin could kill him, and he continued to use the substance until he eventually died from it. Witnesses have come forward as journalists piece together Hoffman’s final days, with one witness sadly sharing that Hoffman introduced himself by saying, “I’m a heroin addict” and another remembering Hoffman relating “I know that if I don’t stop I know I’m gonna die.”

Hoffman wasn’t blind to the risks of heroin addiction. Many addicts aren’t.  It’s 100% his fault he died. No other person should be blamed for his death.

Now, as a criminal defense lawyer with long experience defending drug cases, I realize that the Feds don’t look at things this way.

Hoffman Fought His Demons With Buprenorphine, Rehab, and Narcotics Anonymous

Philip Seymour Hoffman died at age 47 leaving behind three small children. So many are sad, shocked, and angered by the loss of this great talent. Everyone wants to know why this happened.

This week, news coverage continues on Hoffman’s death as his personal diaries have been read, and while the actual diary pages haven’t been released to the public, reports are that Hoffman wrote entries recognizing that he was fighting the “demons” of heroin addiction.

We know that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead with a syringe still in his arm, with over 50 heroin baggies found in his apartment. Hoffman was a serious user at the time of his heroin overdose. He had been to rehab in May, checking himself into a facility after he first returned to using heroin. By December, he was back on the streets of New York City and we know that he had escalated from snorting heroin in May to injecting heroin by December.

Hoffman’s diary reveals his shame about being addicted to heroin and his fight to combat his addiction with visits to Narcotics Anonymous. It is also reported that a drug called Buprenorphine was found at his apartment after his death. This is a prescription drug used as an opioid partial agonist: it helps the heroin addict ween himself off of the heroin with lesser side effects.

Clearly, the movie star struggled with addiction for a long time, was trying to combat his heroin need, and understood he was an addict.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Department of Justice

What does Mr. Hoffman’s death have to do with the Federal Government? Let me tell you what will happen in this case, my predictions as a criminal defense attorney.

First, there’s going to prosecution of the dealers that sold the heroin to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The Federal Government likes to wave their big finger at the defendants in criminal drug conspiracy cases telling them it’s time to accept responsibility for their actions. The entire message the US Attorney’s Office sends to all Defendants in drug cases is that they did wrong by selling or distributing (heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, ICE, GHB etc.) so they MUST take responsibility for what they did.

To some extent, I agree with that. But when someone poisons himself and dies from using heroin, it’s not the time to forget about personal responsibility.

What will happen next in the Hoffman case is entirely predictable. I know because I’ve been there and represented folks in similar situations to those people that supposedly sold the drugs and took the actions that “resulted” in Mr. Hoffman’s death.

The prosecution’s position will be to focus on these defendants and to forget about the fact we are talking about unbelievably wealthy and famous actor who could afford any heroin treatment, counseling, psychotherapy and other medical assistance to wean himself off of the heroin. No, that doesn’t matter. Now that he’s managed to commit Suicide by Heroin, we have to blame someone else for his death. Hoffman’s self-destruction will not be considered here.

Who will it be? How will we do it?

How much time can the US Department of Justice put the person whose heroin distribution “resulted” in Mr. Hoffman’s death into the penitentiary?

How is it done in the real world? Federal law, specifically 21 USC 841, makes it unlawful to distribute or manufacture a “controlled substance” as that is defined with the statute. The different penalty ranges are set out for violating the law, and there are also a variety of mandatory minimum enhancements available to the Federal Government depending on the facts of the case and how the case is pled in the indictment.

In particular, the US Attorney can and WILL indict Mr. Hoffman’s “dealer” or “dealers” for one of those enhanced, mandatory minimum penalty groups.

I am talking about 21 USC 841(b)(1)(C), which enables the United States Attorney prosecuting any person that manufactures, distribute or dispenses, or possesses with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, schedule I controlled substance who also did these things which “resulted” in the death or serious bodily injury of another person to enhance the penalty range to a twenty (20) year mandatory minimum sentencing.

And if the poor sap heroin dealer had a prior felony conviction, the same provision makes the case a mandatory life sentence.

In the Federal system, life means life. No early release.

Now, in my experience, a defendant that decides to fight a case like this in Federal Court and go to trial, and is found guilty will likely expect to receive about a 360 month sentence. That’s 30 years.

For example, Mr. Burl Washington was a Fentanyl dealer in Missouri. He supplied two folks with Fentanyl and those folks died. After an investigation and an undercover sting operation, the Feds indicted Mr. Washington under the above mandatory minimum provision for both deaths. Mr. Washington chose to have a trial and was convicted. The jury having found Mr. Washington’s Fentanyl “resulted” in the deaths of the two victims, the judge later sentenced Mr. Washington to 360 and 240 concurrent months in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

“I am a Scapegoat,” Argues Alleged Dealer Informant Claims Sold Heroin to Philip Seymour Hoffman

In People Magazine this week, one of the four people arrested in the aftermath of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was interviewed. Robert Vineberg was arrested on felony drug possession charges last week, and it is said that an unidentified police informant has fingerpointed Vineberg as being the source for Hoffman’s heroin although Vineberg has not been charged on selling or supplying the heroin to Hoffman (yet).

Of note, the police raid on Vineberg’s apartment turned up 350 bags of (assumedly) heroin, stamped as “Black List” or “Red Bull.” These are different brands of heroin from the bags found in Hoffman’s apartment at the time of his death.  (The bags of heroin found at Hoffman’s apartment were stamped with “Ace of Spades” or “Ace of Hearts.”)

Vineberg, who remains incarcerated in Rikers Island, is a professional jazz saxophonist who explains that he and Philip Seymour Hoffman were friends. They also shared a history of addiction. Vineberg is claiming that he is becoming a “scapegoat” in the case.

If Vineberg is charged under 21 USC 841(b)(1)(C), then his defense team may be arguing the same exact thing to a jury.


Next week:  A new opinion from the United States Supreme Court which may help defendants in cases prosecuted under 21 usc 841 as the High Court delves into causation.


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