Burrage v. United States
571 U.S. ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary
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.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

BURRAGE v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 12–7515. Argued November 12, 2013—Decided January 27, 2014

Long-time drug user Banka died following an extended binge that included using heroin purchased from petitioner Burrage. Burrage pleaded not guilty to a superseding indictment alleging, inter alia, that he had unlawfully distributed heroin and that “death . . . resulted from the use of th[at] substance”—thus subjecting Burrage to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence under the penalty enhancement provision of the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U. S. C. §841(b)(1)(C). After medical experts testified at trial that Banka might have died even if he had not taken the heroin, Burrage moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing that Banka’s death could only “result from” heroin use if there was evidence that heroin was a but-for cause of death. The court denied the motion and, as relevant here, instructed the jury that the Government only had to prove that heroin was a contributing cause of death. The jury convicted Burrage, and the court sentenced him to 20 years. In affirming, the Eighth Circuit upheld the District Court’s jury instruction.

Held: 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 penalty enhancement under §841(b)(1)(C) unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury. Pp. 4–15.

     (a) Section 841(b)(1)(C)’s “death results” enhancement, which increased the minimum and maximum sentences to which Burrage was exposed, is an element that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. See, e.g., Alleyne v. United States, 570 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 4–5.

     (b) Because the Controlled Substances Act does not define “results from,” the phrase should be given its ordinary meaning. See Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U. S. 179 . Ordinarily, that phrase imposes a requirement of actual causality, i.e., proof “ ‘that the harm would not have occurred’ in the absence of—that is, but for—the defendant’s conduct.” University of Tex. Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 570 U. S. ___, ___. Similar statutory phrases—“because of,” see id., at ___, “ ‘based on,’ ” Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Burr, 551 U. S. 47 , and “ ‘by reason of,’ ” Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U. S. 167 —have been read to impose a but-for causation requirement. This Court declines to adopt the Government’s permissive interpretation of “results from” to mean 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. There is no need to address a special rule developed for cases in which multiple sufficient causes independently, but concurrently, produce death, since there was no evidence that Banka’s heroin use was an independently sufficient cause of his death. And though Congress could have written §841(b)(1)(C) to make an act or omission a cause-in-fact if it was a “substantial” or “contributing” factor in producing death, Congress chose instead to use language that imports but-for causality. Pp. 6–12.

     (c) Whether adopting the but-for causation requirement or the Government’s interpretation raises policy concerns is beside the point, for the Court’s role is to apply the statute as written. Pp. 12–14.

687 F. 3d 1015, reversed and remanded.

     Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which the Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ., joined, and in which Alito, J., joined as to all but Part III–B. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Sotomayor, J., joined.

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Primary Holding

To trigger the mandatory minimum sentence under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(C), the drug distributed by the defendant must be the independently sufficient cause of death or serious bodily injury, not merely a "contributing" or "substantial" factor.