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Opinion analysis: New limit on tougher drug sentence

If a drug user dies or is seriously injured after taking in multiple substances, a dealer who supplied one of the items can get an enhanced sentence only if that one drug was the actual cause of the death or injury, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday.

The decision in Burrage v. United States flatly rejected a federal government argument — based on the notion that addicts often use more than one substance — that it would be enough if that one drug played a role in the result, even though it did not itself cause that outcome.

Justice Scalia delivers opinions this morning. (Art Lien)

Justice Scalia delivering opinions this morning. (Art Lien)

The case overturned the twenty-year sentence on one count of a federal case against an Ames, Iowa, man, Marcus Andrew Burrage, for selling heroin to a user who died the next day at his home in Nevada, Iowa, after hours on a “drug binge,” as the Court called it.

Burrage, a dealer known by his street name, “Lil C,” was convicted of distribution counts, and those convictions remain.  He has been serving a twenty-year sentence based on two concurrent twenty-year terms.  One of those was set aside by the new ruling.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion, with the vote unanimous in finding that prosecutors had to prove that Burrage’s sale of heroin to addict Joshua Banka had actually caused Banka’s death, and that was not proved.  Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., refused to join a part of the Scalia opinion that had argued that the outcome would not cause “a policy disaster” for criminal sentencing, as the Justice Department had claimed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote a separate opinion joining only in the result of the case, making the point that the Court should not apply the same interpretation of actual cause in cases involving discrimination claims.

Under a 1986 change in the federal illegal drugs law, Congress specified new minimum penalties for drug crimes, including a lengthier sentence when it results in death or serious bodily injury.  Burrage was charged with selling one gram of heroin to Banka that resulted in his death after two days of nearly continuous drug use — including the substance he had bought from Burrage the day before at a parking lot of a grocer store in Ames.

Banka went home with that heroin, and spent the rest of the day and into the night ingesting that and several other substances.  Two doctors testified at Burrage’s trial that they could not say that Banka would have lived if he had not used the heroin sold by Burrage.

The jury, however, was instructed that it need only find that the heroin from Burrage contributed to Banka’s death.  Burrage was then convicted and given two overlapping twenty-year sentences.

Justice Scalia’s opinion said it is commonplace, in criminal as well as civil cases, to read the phrase “because of” or “resulted from” as meaning that something was the “actual cause” of the outcome.  Without proof of that in Burrage’s case, he should not have been given the twenty-year sentence on the premise that the heroin he sold caused Banka to die.

The decision here, in plain English:

Criminal law, at both the federal and state levels, is filled with definitions of crime that vary the punishment according to the severity of the crime, and often according to what ultimately happened to the victims.   One federal law requires that judges impose a twenty-year sentence in any case in which death or serious bodily injury “results from” trafficking in heroin.

In an Iowa case, the Court said that the phrase “results from” has to be translated as actually causes death or serious bodily injury.  That was not what a jury was told in the case of Marcus Andrew Burrage of Ames, Iowa, leading to his conviction for the death of one of his customers.  That conviction was set aside by the Justices Monday, leaving the case to return to lower courts to decide whether some punishment must result from the simple fact that he sold the heroin, without the enhancement for his customer’s death.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: New limit on tougher drug sentence, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 27, 2014, 12:18 PM),