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January 27, 2014

SCOTUS unanimously rules in Burrage that causation requirement precludes drug defendant facing mandatory minimum for abuser's death

In its one criminal justice ruling this morning, the Supreme Court today via a unanimous vote in Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (S. Ct. Jan. 27, 2014) (available here), rejected an effort by federal prosecutors to expand the reach and application of a mandatory minimum sentencing provision for a drug defendant. Here is the closing paragraph of the opinion of the Court authored by Justice Scalia:

We hold 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 under the penalty enhancement provision of 21 U. S. C. §841(b)(1)(C) unless such use is a but-forcause of the death or injury. The Eighth Circuit affirmed Burrage’s conviction based on a markedly different under­standing of the statute, see 687 F. 3d, at 1020–1024, and the Government concedes that there is no “evidence that Banka would have lived but for his heroin use,” Brief for United States 33. Burrage’s conviction with respect to count 2 of the superseding indictment is therefore re­versed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

January 27, 2014 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Yes. Good decision. What if the defendant was a doctor who had just lost his license and did not get the revocation yet in the mail and he prescribed some oxycotton and some patient took too much and died? The doctor would be up itshay creek without a paddle.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 27, 2014 1:23:47 PM

So the question becomes: what is the logical distinction between many different kinds of drugs in single person's body and many different viewers of the same picture of child pornography?

After all, the but for causation in Paroline lies with the uncle because but for his abuse there would be no pictures. If one wants to argue that there is some incremental harm from each additional viewing, fine, but it's hard to square an incremental understanding with Amy's claim that each of the individuals viewers are responsible for the whole injury.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 27, 2014 2:15:51 PM

Daniel,

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2259

If someone were to read that statute as saying the proximate cause prong only applied to unenumerated categories of loss (which is basically what the 5th circuit did) then it could make sense to say that child porn viewers are on the hook for Amy's millions while Burrage is not at all responsible for the overdose death. I would say the 5th's construction is quite strained but is within the bounds of ordinary English usage.

I do not, however, know enough of the canons of statutory construction to even have an opinion on whether such a construction accords with the rules of legal drafting and interpretation.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 27, 2014 3:28:01 PM

Soronel.

What makes a reading strained or not? The fact is that that the political optics surrounding child pornography and drug dealing is significantly different these days. What I wonder is how much of the ruling in Burrage was motivated by the fact that the victim in the case was not a sympathetic victim.

I do not actually think that the restitution statue requires "but for" causation, that's not what proximate means. But the government's reading of the law in Burrage was not any less strained than its current reading of the law in Paroline. If SCOTUS doesn't take a similar view, it will be interesting to see the mental gymnastics they take to get there.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 27, 2014 11:25:14 PM

"I do not actually think that the restitution statue requires "but for" causation, that's not what proximate means."

Let me clarify. But for causation is only one aspect of thinking about what proximate cause is. I think it is possible to argue on an incremental basis that there is a but for causation to the harm that Amy suffered. But even if there is a but for causation in such incremental cases that still doesn't mean that proximate cause is satisfied if there is no foreseeability or other theory of approximation.

The real problem with an incremental approach to harm is the reality of combined causes. There are so many different viewers there is no rational way of apportioning financial liability in incremental cases.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 27, 2014 11:38:52 PM

But for causation is quite obsolete and false. Really, but for the Big Bang none of these damages would have occurred.

There is still a chain of causation mentality from Medieval times in the legal profession. But assume that it is correct for one second. The legal causation requires there be no unforeseen intervening causes. The voluntary act of the victim breaks that chain.

The modern view of a catastrophe is that factors cluster in time and space, and a catastrophe happens, often around 12 of them. Prevent one of them and you may prevent the entire accident.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 28, 2014 5:11:15 AM

But for Causation isn't obsolete, it's just more of a threshold question. I agree I can't think of a scenario with proximate cause and no cause in fact, but it's often easier to decide a case based on the latter so they might as well figure it out first.

Anyway, the result is surprising, mostly because it was quick and unanimous. I remembered thinking both theories of this case seemed extreme, but that middle ground was likely to be impracticable. That they chose this result isn't shocking, but it was, to me, a very difficult choice so I didn't expect unanimity.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 29, 2014 12:05:33 PM

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