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Supreme Court cuts dealer some slack in drug death case

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at 9:55 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at 9:55 a.m.

The Supreme Court on Monday made it harder to impose strict mandatory minimum sentences on individuals convicted on the federal charge of distributing drugs that result in death.

Strict liability isn't enough. There must now be a "but-for" connection between the drug and the death.

In a sordid case out of Iowa, the unanimous court sided with Marcus Andrew Burrage. Burrage sold heroin to a long-time drug addict named Joshua Banka, who died after ingesting multiple drugs.

The Controlled Substances Act imposes a minimum 20-year sentence for the sale of drugs where “death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance." In the Burrage case, the one gram of heroin sold "contributed to" but was not the "but-for" cause of Banka's death.

Whereupon, Justice Antonin Scalia uses an extended baseball metaphor to explain the difference.

"This but-for requirement is part of the common under standing of cause," Scalia wrote. "Consider a baseball game in which the visiting team’s leadoff batter hits a home run in the top of  the first inning. If the visiting team goes on to win by a score of 1 to 0, every person competent in the English language and familiar with the American pastime would agree that the victory resulted from the home run."

"By contrast," Scalia added, "it makes little sense to say that an event resulted from or was the out­come of some earlier action if the action merely played a nonessential contributing role in producing the event."

Leading to the conclusion, Scalia says, that "The language Congress enacted requires death to 'result from' use of the unlawfully dis­tributed drug, not from a combination of factors to which drug use merely contributed."




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