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She Was Sentenced to 21 Years in Prison for Handing Drugs to a Friend Who Overdosed. A Federal Court Wasn't Having It.

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Billy Binion | 6.4.2021 3:58 PM

On May 9, 2014, Emma Semler, then a teenager, shot up heroin with her friend, Jenny Werstler, in a West Philadelphia KFC bathroom. The former made it out alive. The latter did not.

A little over five years later to the day, Semler was sentenced to more than two decades behind bars for distribution of heroin resulting in death after she physically handed Werstler the baggie that would result in her overdose. The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. Semler received 21 years' imprisonment, along with six years' supervised release and a $2,500 fine.

A federal court reversed that this week, vacating Semler's conviction and sentence.

The distribution charge and its mandatory punishment are both rooted in the war on drugs and meant to zero in on dealers. But Semler found herself caught up in its dragnet because she passed the heroin to Werstler, who had asked for it—an absurdly literal reading of the law, and a reminder of the far-reaching implications of well-meaning attempts to crack down on drug use.

"Turning to a plain reading of the statute, we are not persuaded by the government's sweeping interpretation," wrote Circuit Judge Jane Richards Roth of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. "The government would have us believe that if two drug addicts jointly and simultaneously purchase methamphetamine and return home to smoke it together, a 'distribution' has occurred each time the addicts pass the pipe back and forth to each other. Such an interpretation diverts punishment from traffickers to addicts, who contribute to the drug........

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