President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, also called the “Len Bias Law.” Len Bias was an NBA player who died from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose during a basketball game. The federal law allows judges to sentence a person to life in prison if he gets convicted of distributing drugs that result in the death of someone who uses the drugs.
The legislative history of the “Len Bias Law” Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (Act) states that the purpose of the law is to:
- Eradicate illegal drug crops
- Halt international drug traffic
- Improve the enforcement of federal drug legislation
- Increase the capture of illicit drug shipments
- Establish effective drug abuse prevention and education programs
- Increase federal support for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug abuse
After several compromises, the Congress passed and the President signed the final version of the Act, which is over 130 pages long. The Act has multiple sections and subsections. Some of the topics the law addresses include:
- Narcotics penalties and enforcement
- The import and export of controlled substances
- Penalties for drug possession
- Forfeiture of assets
- Money laundering
- Deportation of narcotics traffickers
- International and domestic drug sale and transportation
- Juvenile drug trafficking
The Act kicked off what became known as the “War on Drugs.”
Three Levels of Penalties
The federal legislation substantially increased the maximum penalties for drug convictions, including the length of imprisonment, the amount of fines, and more stringent parole terms called supervised release in the Act. The statute has three levels of penalties for drug convictions:
Mandatory Jail Terms of 10 Years or Longer
The most severe penalties are for trafficking Schedule I and Schedule II controlled substances in these quantities:
- One kilogram or more of a substance that has a detectable amount of heroin;
- Five kilograms or more of a substance that contains a detectable amount of some forms of coca leaves, cocaine and related substances, or ecgonine (crack or freebase cocaine in a smokable form);
- 50 grams or more of a substance that has a cocaine base;
- 100 grams or more of phencyclidine (PCP) or 1 kilogram or more of a substance that has a detectable amount of PCP;
- 10 grams or more of a substance that contains a detectable amount of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD);
- 400 grams or more of a substance that has a detectable amount of a compound commonly called fentanyl; or
- 1000 kilograms or more of a substance that contains a detectable amount of marijuana or its derivatives, like hashish or hashish oil.
Even for first offenders with no prior felony drug convictions, the judge has to sentence the defendant to at least 10 years and up to life imprisonment. If someone suffered death or serious bodily harm from using the contraband, the first offender must get a sentence of at least 20 years and up to life imprisonment.
The court has the option to impose a fine of up to $4,000,000 on a first-time offender. After serving the ordered prison term, the parole (supervise release) must be at least five years.
A defendant with a prior felony drug conviction, whether for a state, federal, or foreign offense, must receive a mandatory term of imprisonment of at least 20 years, up to life imprisonment. If death or serious bodily harm results from someone using illegal drugs, the repeat offender must get a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Also, the repeat defendant can receive fines of up to double the amount of financial gain from the drug enterprise.
Mandatory Jail Terms of 5 Years or Longer
For specified smaller quantities of illegal drugs, a first-time offender can receive imprisonment of at least five years and up to 40 years. The first-time fine can be up to $2,000,000 for an individual and $5,000,000 for a non-individual. Supervised parole must be at least four years.
A convicted defendant with prior felony convictions must get a sentence of at least 10 years and up to life imprisonment. If death or serious bodily harm results from someone’s use of street drugs, a repeat offender must receive a life imprisonment sentence. The fines can be double the amount for a first-time offender.
Penalties That Usually Do Not Have Mandatory Jail Terms
For very small amounts of the stated illicit drugs, a first offender generally does not face a mandatory term of imprisonment, but a judge can sentence the person to a term of up to 20 years. Resulting in death or serious bodily harm, however, triggers a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life imprisonment for the first-time offender. The supervised parole must be at least three years.
Repeat offenders can get a prison term of up to 30 years. The supervised parole must be at least six years. If someone dies or suffers serious bodily harm from illegal drugs, the repeat offender must get a sentence of life imprisonment. The fines can be double for repeat offenders.
State “Len Bias” Laws
Many states passed their own versions of the Len Bias Law to use when sentencing people convicted of state drug distribution offenses. Some state laws include mandatory sentencing guidelines. Other states allow prosecutors to charge a person with reckless homicide for distributing drugs that cause a user’s death.
Criticisms of Len Bias Laws
Some people criticize these anti-drug laws as poorly written and punishing the wrong individuals. In practice, the legislation tends to target the drug dealer on the street, not the drug bosses.
If you or a loved one suffered catastrophic injury as a result of drugs, a lawyer may be able to help. Call Newsome | Melton today at (888) 808-5977 for a free case evaluation.