Supreme Court Accepts Case to Decide What it Means When “Death Results” From Drug Dealing

Sitting here in Atlanta, I really like when I find out about bright, energetic lawyers handling federal criminal cases all around the country. One such case is Burrage v. United States, where this past Tuesday the United States Supreme Court agreed to review important questions as to what it means when “death results” from drug dealing. To many lawyers and others in this field, it might seem that a case like this only really matters to folks defending drug cases. However, this is an important appeal on issues related to causation, the appropriateness of jury instructions, and construing federal statutes.

Mr. Burrage was like too many folks, caught up in the drug business, selling relatively small amounts of controlled substances. His life intersected with Joshua Banka, another lost soul who was a long-standing poly-substance abuser. Burrage sold some heroin to Banka, who died after using some of the drug. Banka had lots of other drugs in his system as well, and his girlfriend acknowledged he’d used some of these other drugs in the day before he died. The experts who testified at trial gave complex answers about the cause of Banka’s death, but they could not say that Banka would not have died if he had not used heroin (this method of saying the word “not” three times in the same sentence appears in the briefs for each side of the case).

A federal statute requires a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for a person dealing drugs “if death results.” At trial, the Defendant wanted the judge to tell the jury that selling heroin “played a substantial part” in bringing about the death, and that the death was a “direct result of or a reasonably probable consequence of” using the heroin. Mr. Burrage’s attorney also wanted a jury instruction on the well-known first-year law school concept of “proximate cause” . The trial judge and the court of appeals rejected the Defendant’s contentions, and said it was OK to tell the jury that it was enough if they decided that the heroin was a “contributing cause” of Mr. Banka’s death. The instruction told the jury that “a contributing cause is a factor that, although not the primary cause, played a part in the death[.]” The jury found Burrage guilty, the Court of Appeals rejected his arguments, and his very competent Iowa lawyer asked the United States Supreme Court to look at the case.

The government protested that the Supreme Court should not review the case because the “if death results” issue rarely comes up in federal criminal prosecutions, and that any dispute among the lower federal courts on these questions is really more of a tempest in a teapot. However, it seems that the Supreme Court believes this really is an important case, for they accepted Mr. Burrage’s case for review and argument next Fall. The case will have important lessons for many other federal criminal prosecutions, issues as diverse as how to read a statute written in the passive voice (“if death results” is different than the active voice “caused death”), whether it is OK to construe a criminal statute with mandatory penalties in a manner akin to strict liability, and varying levels of “causation”, a concept that applies in criminal and civil cases alike.

We look forward to the Briefs and arguments, and how this decision might affect the matters we handle for our clients. Stay tuned.