Update: Burrage Supreme Court Case Decided

Post Date: January 27, 2014

It’s unanimous: U.S. Supreme Court overturns federal conviction and the 20-year mandatory minimum that went with it.

Federal law calls for harsh mandatory minimum sentences for distributing drugs. These five- and ten-year sentences are imposed when a person is convicted of selling specific drug quantities. In some case, federal law requires courts to dramatically enhance those already long mandatory minimum sentences. For example, if “death results” from taking a drug, the dealer who supplied it will see his or her sentence increased to a mandatory minimum of twenty years or even life in prison.

Marcus Andrew Burrage sold heroin to Joshua Banka, a drug user who died after binging for two days on a lot of different drugs, including the heroin Burrage supplied. The doctors who testified at trial could not say that Banka would have lived but for the heroin Burrage gave him. The jury was told nonetheless that it could convict Burrage of the “death results” enhancement if it merely found that the heroin “contributed to” the user’s death.

The government successfully prosecuted Burrage both for supplying the heroin and for causing Banka’s death. The issue in Burrage v. United States was how much the government must prove to show that Banka died as a result of the heroin Burrage sold.   

Burrage’s appeal made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that to convict a person for a death that results from a drug requires, at a minimum, that the drug actually caused the death. The government argued that it only needed to prove that the drug played a “contributing” role in the death, even if it was not the actual, or “but-for,” cause of death.

The Supreme Court ruled that to convict Burrage, the government had to prove that the heroin he supplied actually caused Banka’s death. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote this very common sense opinion for the entire Court, used law, simple math and even baseball analogies to explain it. He said that it is common in daily life and in criminal and civil law to understand that “results from” means “actually caused.” 

The defendant, he wrote, cannot be liable for the 20-year mandatory minimum unless the drug he supplied was the “but-for cause of the death.” Burrage’s conviction and the 20-year sentence it triggered were thrown out. 

FAMM participated in the case by filing a “friend of the court,” aka “amicus” brief. We pointed out that if the law was unclear, the Court should use the “rule of lenity” to reverse Burrage’s conviction. The rule of lenity is a tool courts use to sort things out when a law has more than one possible meaning. It says that the court should use the meaning that results in a better outcome for the defendant. FAMM also provided the court with legal cases and arguments to support the concept that “death results” means that the drug actually caused the death; that but for the heroin, Banka would not have died. The Court relied on a number of cases that FAMM included in our brief. FAMM is grateful to attorneys Gregory G. Rapawy and Caitlin S. Hall of the Washington, D.C. law firm Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, P.L.L.C. for writing our amicus brief and FAMM Amicus Committee Chair Peter Goldberger of Ardmore, PA for guiding our work.

Read more about the case here.

Those who have questions about whether the Burrage decision applies to their or a loved one’s case should talk to an attorney.