News Release

Unanimous Supreme Court Applies Rule of Lenity; Reverses a 20-Year Mandatory Sentencing Enhancement for Sale of One Gram of Heroin

Washington, DC (January 27, 2014)—Today, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued an important criminal law ruling 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, Mr. Burrage had 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 had 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. Today’s decision in Burrage v. United States is available here.

NACDL President Jerry J. Cox said: "NACDL applauds this decision, noting that it is another important example of the Court, in this case led by Justice Scalia who authored the opinion, properly applying the rule of lenity to restrict the sprawl of an ambiguously worded federal statute that was being broadly interpreted by the lower courts."

As set forth in NACDL’s July 2013 amicus curiae brief in support of Mr. Burrage, as of that date, "[t]he Court has not had occasion to interpret the causal element of a federal criminal statute." That is no longer the case. The Court today provided guidance that could have a tangible impact on the interpretation of other criminal statutes’ causal elements.

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Ivan Dominguez, Director of Public Affairs and Communications (202) 465-7662 or

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.