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A convicted heroin trafficker will not have to serve the tough, 20-year mandatory federal prison sentence usually imposed when an illicit drug deal ends in the user's death, the US Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a case that defines some of the parameters of America's strict "mandatory minimum" prison sentences, the court ruled that the law does not apply in the case of defendant Marcus Burrage, even though an addict who purchased drugs from him later died of an overdose.
The law might have applied, if it were clear that the heroin Burrage sold drug addict Joshua Banka was the direct cause of his death.
But the court noted that in addition to the heroin, other drugs were responsible for Banka's overdose, since he had around the same time ingested a cocktail that included anti-depressants and sleeping medications.
"There is no evidence that Banka's heroin use was sufficient to cause his death," Justice Antonin Scalia said in comments made from the bench Monday. The court heard arguments in the case in November.
At issue was a 1986 federal law that meted out a mandatory 20 year prison sentence to dealers whose clients die from use of the drugs they sell them.
Burrage was condemned to serve two 20-year prison sentences at the time of his conviction by a court in the midwestern state of Iowa -- one for the drug trafficking and the mandatory additional penalty because of Banka's death.
He appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, which found that the heavier penalty can not be imposed when the drugs sold by a defendant are merely a "contributing factor" and not the proximate cause of a drug user's death.
The nine-justice panel elaborated on their thinking in Monday's opinion that sided with Burrage.
"Is it sufficient that use of a drug made the victim's death 50 percent more likely? Fifteen percent? Five? Who knows?" their opinion read.
"Uncertainty of that kind cannot be squared with the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard applicable in criminal trials."
Justice officials noted that the conviction against Burrage for drug trafficking was unaffected by the high court ruling.