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