U.S. Supreme Court Reverses 8th Circuit in Important Drug Case

This morning the United States Supreme Court reversed a defendant’s conviction and vacated his 20 years sentence in a federal felony drug case. The case is Burrage v. United States and it should be considered a substantial victory for defendants in all federal criminal cases, not just federal drug prosecutions. Burrage was a drug dealer and Banka was one of his clients. In April of 2010, Burrage sold Banka some heroin. Banka died of a drug overdose on the day Burrage sold him the heroin. However, the evidence showed that heroin was far from the only substance Banka used on the day he died. Banka had been on an extended drug binge. On the day in question he had consumed heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, alprazolam, clonazepam and marijuana. Burrage had only sold him the heroin. Burrage was charged with a special form of drug dealing under our federal criminal law statutes. Burrage was charged with distribution of a controlled substance (heroin). And, he was charged with a sentencing enhancement that subjected him to a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence because a death occurred as a result of the use of the heroin. Thus, if the jury found that Burrage distributed heroin to Banka, and that Banka died as a result of the use of that heroin, Burrage would be required to serve at least 20 years in prison. The primary legal issue was what it meant for a death to be the “result” of the drug use. Prior to the case going to the jury, Burrage asked the court to advise the jury that it could not find him guilty of the sentencing enhancement unless the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Banka’s use of heroin was a direct cause of his death. This is often called “but for” analysis. In this case, Burrage argued that he should not be subjected to the 20 year mandatory minimum sentence unless the jury found that, but for Banka’s use of Burrage’s heroin, he would not have died. The trial court rejected Burrage’s argument. Instead of using “but for” analysis, the court held that Burrage would be subjected to the 20 year mandatory minimum sentence if the jury found that Burrage’s heroin merely contributed to Banka’s death. Burrage was found guilty by the jury and he was sentenced to 20 years. He appealed. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same appellate court that covers federal criminal appeals from cases in South Dakota, affirmed the conviction and sentence. It agreed with the trial court judge that merely contributing to Banka’s death was sufficient to send Burrage to prison for 20 years. Fortunately for Burrage, and for other similarly situated defendants, the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction and vacated the sentence. It held that the jury should have been instructed that it could not find Burrage guilty of the sentencing enhancement unless it found that, but for the heroin, Banka would not have died. The Court noted that there was evidence produced at trial from medical experts that Banka probably would have died from the other drugs even if he hadn’t consumed any heroin. An especially important aspect of the decision is the fact that all nine justices of the court agreed that Burrage’s conviction should be reversed and his sentence vacated. A few of them offered slightly different reasons for reaching that conclusion, but all agreed in the result. This increases the precedential value of the decision. It means that in other areas of federal criminal law where sentencing enhancements exist, trial courts may use the precedent set in Burrage’s case and require direct causation prior to allowing a sentencing enhancement to be used against a defendant.