A week before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a drug overdose, the Supreme Court restrained what one federal prosecutor called “the strongest tool” U.S. authorities have to go after dealers in such cases, and now some U.S. drug prosecutions are getting sent to rehab, reports ABC News. “We may not be able to meet the standard of proof in those cases,” the U.S. Attorney in Vermont, Tris Coffin, said of overdose cases involving a cocktail of drugs. “It will have some impact.” A federal judge in Kentucky has vacated the most severe charge against Harold Salyers, 53, a father who was certain to spend decades in prison after being convicted last year of selling heroin to a man who then died. In Alaska and Ohio, defense attorneys are hoping their clients can similarly benefit from the high court decision.
On average, drug traffickers in federal cases are sentenced to less than seven years behind bars. But “when death or serious bodily injury results,” the dealer can face a mandatory minimum of 20 years and as long as life in prison. Federal authorities have long sought the stiffer charge when a dealer’s drugs contributed to an overdose. In January, the Supreme Court ruled the dealer’s drugs need to do more than just contribute, they need to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” as one Justice Department official put it. That’s “problematic,” especially in overdose cases where an accused dealer’s drugs are not the only drugs involved. Nearly half of all overdoses involve multiple drugs, federal statistics indicate.