March 3, 2014 -- A week before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on a mix of heroin, cocaine and other drugs, the Supreme Court restrained what one top prosecutor called "the strongest tool" federal authorities have to go after dealers in such cases, and now some U.S. drug prosecutions are getting sent to rehab.
"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."
In fact, a federal judge in Kentucky has already vacated the most severe charge against 53-year-old Harold Salyers, 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 separately hoping their clients can similarly benefit from the high court's recent 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, according to federal law.
Federal authorities have long sought the stiffer charge when a dealer's drugs contributed in some way to an overdose. In January, though, 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, according to the official.
Nearly half of all overdoses involve multiple drugs, federal statistics indicate.
"Now we need to [prove] not that just drugs killed them, but which drugs killed them," said the Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In Kentucky, Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood recently decided the legal standard used at Salyers' trial "is no longer in keeping with the law of the land," so he vacated the overdose-linked conviction.
Salyers still stands convicted of three other drug-related counts and could face a new charge under the revised standard should prosecutors seek it.
"The [Supreme Court] decision doesn't say that Salyers is innocent," noted U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey, whose office in eastern Kentucky is prosecuting the Salyers case as part of a larger fight against heroin's resurgence. "The defendant gets a do-over" on the one conviction, he said. A hearing is set for March 24.
In Alaska, attorney Steve Wells insisted "the whole case" against his client -- two overdose-linked charges -- should be dismissed. Defendant Max Jewett and another Anchorage man allegedly sold heroin to a 14-year-old girl, who died after taking a cocktail of drugs around Christmas Day 2011.
Wells said he expects to file a motion for dismissal as early as today, and he believes the judge in Jewett's case will grant it. But he also expects prosecutors to have his client indicted again.
"I don't think that the government will go gently into this good night," Wells said.
In Ohio, attorney Roger Synenberg said he is looking at whether he can "attack the legitimacy" of a charge against his client, Garland Phelps, who was one of 20 people arrested in January for allegedly taking part in a drug-running operation in Akron.
Phelps was the only one charged in connection with an overdose. In a statement at the time, U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said the heroin Phelps allegedly provided "directly contributed to an overdose death."
But the Supreme Court, in its Jan. 27 opinion, said federal law "requires death to 'result from' use of the [illegal] drug, not from a combination of factors to which drug use merely contributed."
The Supreme Court decision in Burrage v. United States initially received scant news coverage and only moderate notice since actor Hoffman's overdose -- a case being handled by local authorities in New York that highlights some of the obstacles to bringing federal charges.
Still, top federal prosecutors said they don't believe the high court's decision is "a significant setback" or "a real game-changer for us."
Medical experts will just have to dig deeper to determine a drug's exact role in death, and federal prosecutors rarely seek the stiffer charge anyway, even when an overdose occurs, according to both Coffin and Harvey, the U.S. attorneys.
"We're going to be fine" and will bring "most of the cases we want to bring," Harvey said.
But the Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said finding medical experts who can determine a drug's exact role is not so easy and "is a big burden on the government." Plus, the official said, the Supreme Court decision could be "a blow" to investigative efforts.
"The 20-year mandatory minimum has been tremendously efficient in scaring the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain," the official said. "It's been a really good negotiating tool."
Coffin wasn't so worried, saying prosecutors still have "so many others levers" and "really tough penalties" to induce cooperation.
One thing everyone agreed on: The Supreme Court decision could bring a "new battlefield" in federal overdose cases, with prosecutors shifting attention away from "death" and toward "serious bodily injury" cited in the same law.
"There will be some cases that … we'll have to do in a different way," Coffin said.
After all, it may now be easier to prove a dealer's drug seriously damaged a vital organ than killed the person.
It's "a new area" prosecutors "will have to focus on," Coffin said.