Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Burrage v. U.S: When Does Drug Trafficking Cause Death?

.:[ Melissa ]:. via flickr
Next term, the Supreme Court will consider when a drug dealer can be held criminally liable under a federal law punishing distribution of drugs that cause death. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) sets a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum sentence of life for drug trafficking "if death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance." So what does that mean?

Facts at Trial

Joshua Banka, a long time intravenous drug abuser ended up on a bender. He used many drugs, including heroin obtained from defendant, Marcus Burrage. Things did not end well. As described in the petition for Certiorari:
When officers arrived, Banka was already dead. There was a syringe in the bathroom sink with a baggie lying next to it, containing heroin. There were three empty syringes, one full syringe and a bag of unused syringes in the vehicle. There was a bottle of Baclofen prescribed to David Letsch, a bottle of clonazepam, alprazolam, a bottle of hydrocodone, and Oxycodone tablets. There were three syringes and three unused syringes in the bathroom. There was a Mountain Dew can and a marijuana bong in the house. Also, there was a baggie of other narcotics found in the vehicle, which while recorded in some of the reports, officers failed to identify what controlled substance was found in the vehicle. One officer knew it to contain suspected narcotics, though those narcotics were never submitted to a lab or recorded on the property inventory. p. 8.
Burrage was prosecuted in an Iowa Federal court for distributing drugs resulting in death. At trial, The Medical examiner testified that the cause of death was a “mixed drug intoxication with the drugs contributing to death, including heroin, the oxycodone, the alprazolam and the clonazepam.” The victim also had physical health problems including heart and lung disease. Many of the drugs involved were potentially fatal and, since blood tests could not clearly distinguish the different kind of opiates in his system, it was impossible to determine what levels of each drug the victim had taken. A toxicologist also testified, but neither expert was willing to say that heroin itself caused death, or that it's omission from Banka's bender would have saved his life.

The defense asked for a jury instruction explaining that a conviction was only supported if the prosecution proved that heroin was a proximate cause of the death and that the death must have been a foreseeable result of Burrage's conduct. The judge rejected the requests and instead gave an instruction allowing a conviction if the heroin was a contributing cause with no foreseeability requirement. The jury convicted and Bourgee got the minimum 20 year sentence.

Issues Presented and Potential Impact

The court granted certiorari on two issues:
  1. Whether the crime of distribution of drugs causing death under 21 U.S.C. § 841 is a strict liability crime, without a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement; and
  2. Whether a person can be convicted for distribution of heroin causing death utilizing jury instructions which allow a conviction when the heroin that was distributed “contributed to,” death by “mixed drug intoxication,” but was not the sole cause of death of a person.
A defense favorable opinion would likely rely on a close interpretation of § 841's language. That holding would be limited to that statute and perhaps others using similar language. Still, there's some potential for a broader ruling. The Court could use a due process rationale to find that something more that coincidence of events is needed to support these convictions. Maybe the court could spell out some basic principles of proximate cause that must apply to these kinds of offenses. That holding would impact a wide array of statutes.

Many jurisdictions, like Maine, have similar laws allowing for aggravated drug trafficking charges and mandatory sentences if the drugs trafficked cause injury or death. Lawyers love a good causation issue and, when only a particular mechanism of causation supports a conviction, the charges are easier to defend and apply to fewer cases. It's no surprise then that legislatures have drafted these statutes with broad terms which allow a conviction where conduct is only tenuously connected to a result. It sure seems like our law should require something more, maybe the Supreme Court will agree.