In April 2010, an Iowa man died. He was a longtime user of multiple controlled substances, and he apparently had six in his system at the time of his death, including heroin. His widow picked a man called Lil C out of a lineup as the dealer who sold her husband the heroin, and Lil C was charged with drug distribution under the federal Controlled Substances Act -- an offense with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.
That mandatory sentence gets doubled to 20 years, however, "if death or serious bodily injury results" from defendant's drug distribution, and prosecutors sought the tougher sentence for Lil C. But even assuming he did sell heroin to the Iowa man, he wasn't accused of selling him other drugs. Was it the heroin that resulted in his death, or might the two prescription benzodiazepines and two prescription painkillers have played a role?
At trial, two medical experts admitted they couldn't be sure. It was "very less likely" the man would have died without the heroin, but not certain. Nevertheless, Lil C was convicted of distribution resulting in death, and that conviction was upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Lil C's appeal and released its ruling this week: all nine justices agreed that Lil C could not be held legally responsible for the Iowa man's death.
The plain language of the Controlled Substances Act, the court held, doubles the minimum sentence only when death "results" from drugs sold by the defendant -- not when they merely contribute to the death, as was the case here.
Five states have passed laws holding drug dealers responsible when drugs "contribute" to death, the court pointed out. Congress could have used that language in the Controlled Substances Act but didn't -- and perhaps for good reason. How would that work?
"Is it sufficient that use of a drug made the victim's death 50 percent more likely? Fifteen percent? Five?" Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. "Who knows. Uncertainty of that kind cannot be squared with the beyond-a-reasonable doubt standard applicable in criminal trials or with the need to express criminal laws in terms ordinary persons can comprehend."
Whatever the policy repercussions, Scalia added, it's not the job of the courts to write the best law but to interpret the laws as written. Lil C must be resentenced.
Source: Courthouse News Service, "Justices Toss Conviction in Heroin-Linked Death," Barbara Leonard, Jan. 27, 2014