Seventh Circuit rules on critical drug sentencing issue

On behalf of Law Office of Steven Haney posted in Drug Crimes on Monday, July 15, 2013

A foundational principle of the criminal justice system is predictability. It is critically important that criminal law functions predictably on two levels. First, members of society must be able to predict and understand what actions will be considered criminally illegal when committed. Second, those who do commit criminal acts must be treated similarly under the law. If individuals are dissimilarly accused, convicted or sentenced, the system becomes unpredictable and unjust.

In a recent ruling, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals seemed to uphold justifications for unpredictability in the sentencing of certain drug crimes. Other circuit courts have ruled in favor of strict predictability with regards to a particular mandatory minimum sentencing law. As a result, the Supreme Court will likely be compelled to settle the circuit split at some point. In the meantime, residents of Illinois and other jurisdictions under the authority of the 7th Circuit will be subject to this holding in federal cases.

In the case before the court, five Wisconsin heroin dealers were charged in the fatal overdosing deaths of five users. The dealers were specifically charged with conspiracy to distribute the drugs that the users eventually overdosed on. The dealers played a variety of roles in their heroin operation. Two defendants were high-level distributors, one supplied the drugs and two were lower-level street dealers.

In prosecuting the five defendants, the government sought a mandatory minimum of 20 years imprisonment for each, under a law that compels such a minimum in cases in which “death or serious bodily injury results” from the drugs distributed by the defendants. The 7th Circuit denied to apply this mandatory minimum to all individuals involved in the broader drug network.

The Court reasoned that not all members of a drug network are equally liable for the overdose deaths of users. This ruling stands in contrast to the explicit logic upheld by six other circuits. In many ways, the 7th Circuit is allowing for unpredictability in sentencing of those convicted of drug crimes. However, the court is simultaneously advocating for predictability within the criminal code that does not allow for significant mandatory minimum sentences of low-level drug offenders who may in some small way be unknowingly tied to a drug network involved in an overdose death. The 7th Circuit’s logic seems just. But the circuit split on this issue will likely result in a Supreme Court ruling either for or against this particular approach at some point in the near future either way.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Drug Dealer Sentencing Is Role-Based, Court Says,” Joseph Celentino, July 9, 2013