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Burrage v. United States, US Supreme Court (1/27/14)

Criminal Law

HeroinLong-time drug user Banka died after a binge that included use of heroin purchased from Burrage. Burrage pleaded not guilty to charges that he had unlawfully distributed heroin and that “death … resulted from the use of th[at] substance,” which carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(C). Medical experts testified that Banka might have died even if he had not taken the heroin. The court instructed the jury that the prosecution had to prove only that heroin was a contributing cause of death. The jury convicted Burrage, and the court sentenced him to 20 years. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.  The Supreme Court reversed. Where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of death or serious bodily injury, the penalty enhancement does not apply unless such use is a “but-for” cause of the death or injury.  The Court declined to address cases in which multiple sufficient causes independently, but concurrently, produce death, because there was no evidence that Banka’s heroin use was an independently sufficient cause of his death. Congress could have written the statute to refer to a “substantial” or “contributing” factor in producing death, but instead used language that imports but-for causality.

Kosilek v. Spencer, US 1st Cir. (1/17/14)

Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

shutterstock_121502677Sixty-four-year-old Plaintiff was born anatomically male but suffered from severe gender identity disorder. In 1992, Plaintiff was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2000, Plaintiff filed a complaint against the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC), alleging that the DOC was denying her adequate medical care by not providing her with sex reassignment surgery. The district court subsequently issued an order requiring the Commissioner of the DOC to provide Plaintiff was sex reassignment surgery, finding that the DOC’s failure to provide the surgery violated Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. The DOC appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the district court did not err in finding that Plaintiff had a serious medical need for sex reassignment surgery and that the DOC refused to meet that need for pretextual reasons unsupported by legitimate penological considerations in violation of Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights.

Verizon v. FCC, et al, US DC Cir. (1/14/14)

Communications Law, Internet Law

broadbandVerizon challenged the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which imposed disclosure, anti-blocking, and anti-discrimination requirements on broadband providers. The court concluded that the Commission has established that section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. 1302(a), (b), vests it with affirmative authority to enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure; the Commission reasonably interpreted section 706 to empower it to promulgate rules governing broadband providers’ treatment of Internet traffic, and its justification for the specific rules at issue here – that they will preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet – was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence; given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. 201 et seq., expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such; and because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules did not impose per se common carrier obligations, the court vacated those portions of the Open Internet Order.