Burrage v. United States

Case:  Burrage v. United States (12-7515)

FAMM’s Amicus Brief

The Court’s Opinion

Update 1: U.S. Supreme Court Oral Arguments, Nov. 12, 2013 

Update 2: U.S. Supreme Court Issues Decision, January 27, 2014

Summary of Case:

On July 26, 2013, FAMM filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in a case that involves death by overdose, a harsh mandatory minimum, and the thin line that separates guilt and innocence.

Burrage v. United States (12-7515), involves a provision of the much-used statute criminalizing controlled substances, 21 U.S.C. § 841.  Most readers are aware of its five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing or distributing drugs.  Less well known are the harsh 20-year and life sentences if “death or serious bodily injury results from the use of” the drugs the defendant provided.

Burrage had provided a small amount of heroin to a man who later died after bingeing on a large combination of drugs.  He was charged with distributing drugs that, when used, resulted in death.

At trial, the issue was whether the death “resulted from” the injection of the heroin. Two doctors for the prosecution testified that while the heroin contributed to the death, it did not “cause” the death. This was because there were a number of drugs in his system and they could not say that but for the heroin the death would not have occurred.  Defense counsel argued that the jury be instructed to find Burrage guilty only if the government had proved the heroin was the actual, or substantial cause of death.  The government successfully convinced the trial court to instruct the jurors that it was enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if the defendant provided the heroin and the heroin merely “played a part” in the mixed-drug overdose death.  The jury convicted Burrage who was sentenced to the 20-year mandatory minimum.  Absent the “death results” finding, the sentence would have been capped at 20 years.

In the Supreme Court, Burrage argued that the “death results” language clearly requires that the heroin was the actual or substantial cause of death.  FAMM agreed with Burrage’s argument that the law was clear. We became involved to explain why, if the Court thought the “death results” language at all unclear, it should apply the “rule of lenity” and interpret that provision of the statute in favor of the defendant.  This, we said, is especially important when an unclear law has a mandatory minimum sentence. We argued that the costs of misinterpreting an unclear law with mandatory minimums included offending courts’ `instinctive distaste against men languishing in prison unless the lawmaker has clearly said they should.’”  Mandatory minimums are especially problematic in this regard because a mistake about the law’s reach has such extreme  consequences that the court cannot correct by lowering the sentence.

FAMM is especially grateful to Greg Rapawy and Caitlin Hall of the law firm Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, P.L.L.C. for writing our amicus brief and to Peter Goldberger, chair of FAMM’s amicus committee for guiding our work on this and all our amicus briefs.