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NACDL News: Supreme Court Reverses Sentencing Enhancement in Drug Case
By Ivan J. Dominguez
NACDL News columns.
A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued an important criminal law ruling on January 27 in the case of Burrage v. United States by applying the rule of lenity — a rule of statutory construction that resolves ambiguities in the language of a law in favor of the defendant. Reversing the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court held that to apply the 20-year minimum sentencing enhancement in § 841(b)(1)(C) to someone convicted of selling certain substances to a user who then dies, “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[,]” the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that “but for” the use of that particular substance, the user of the drug would be alive.
In this case, Marcus Burrage sold one gram of heroin to someone who, according to toxicology reports introduced at trial, had a cocktail of multiple drugs in his system. The government secured the now-reversed sentencing enhancement in the lower court through argument and a jury instruction that it is enough under the statute — the plain language of which requires that the “death … result[ed] from the use of such substance” — to prove that the substance sold by the defendant was a “contributing cause” of the user’s death. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.
A copy of the Court’s decision in Burrage v. United States and a copy of the amicus brief NACDL filed in support of Mr. Burrage are available in the News Releases section of the NACDL website.