27 January 2014

Law in Plain English: Burrage v. United States

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogBurrage v. United States

Argument: Nov 12 2013 (Aud.)

Background: Burrage sold heroin to Banka, who later died. A forensic toxicologist and a doctor from the State Medical Examiner's Office said that heroin contributed to Banka's death, but neither could say that Banka would not have died if he had not taken the heroin. Nonetheless, a jury convicted Burrage of distribution of heroin and distribution of heroin resulting in death (which subjected Burrage to a mandatory minimum sentence), and the Eighth Circuit affirmed. Burrage's appeal is based on the argument that a death that "results from" heroin required the prosecution to show "proximate cause" (but for the heroin, Banka's death would not have happened); and that heroin contributed to Banka's death as part of a larger mixed drug intoxication was not sufficient to show that it resulted from heroin.

Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) whether the crime of distribution of drugs causing death is a strict liability crime, without a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement; and (2) whether a person can be convicted for distribution of heroin causing death utilizing jury instructions which allow a conviction when the heroin that was distributed “contributed to,” death by “mixed drug intoxication,” but was not the sole cause of death of a person.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that, at least where the use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim's death or serious bodily injury, the defendant cannot be eligible for the mandatory minimum sentence under the statute unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury. As a result, the Eighth Circuit's decision was reversed and Burrage cannot be subject to the penalty enhancement.
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