Criminal Defense Attorneys Win Case in Supreme Court: Decision Turned on the Meaning of When ” Death Results”

This past Wednesday some federal criminal defense attorneys won a case in the United States Supreme Court when they convinced the Justices that they had the better interpretation of the part of a law that increased their client’s sentence if “death results” from something he did. I previously posted about the case here. The case issued on Wednesday is Burrage v. United States, and can be read here.

The case revolves around a federal statute that requires a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for a person dealing drugs “if death results.” Mr. Burrage was charged with selling heroin to a man who died after a drug binge involving multiple illegal substances. The jury would have to decide if the heroin sold by the Defendant to the victim caused the man’s death. Mr. Burrage’s lawyers wanted the judge to tell the jury that they would need to find 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. 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 the victim’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, and the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Justice Salia wrote the opinion in which all 9 Justices agreed with the Defendant in one way or another. Justice Scalia said that at least where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable for the 20-year penalty enhancement unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury. This specific law never defined the phrase “results from,” so Scalia said it should be given its “ordinary meaning.” Usually this means actual causality, or proof that the harm would not have occurred in the absence of-that is, but for-the defendant’s conduct. The Court looked at similar phrases in other laws, such as “because of,” or “based on”, noting that in these other contexts the laws have been read to impose a but-fo rcausation requirement. The Court rebuffed the Government’s argument that “results from” means that use of a drug distributed by the defendant need only contribute to an aggregate force, e.g., mixed-drug intoxication, that is itself a but-for cause of death.

Again, as I wrote earlier, this is not merely a case involving drug dealing. The issue of causation comes up again and again in law suits. We applaud the attorneys who stuck to their guns in this case, and who likely saved their client some time in prison in this otherwise very sad case.

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