A Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh

Supreme Court rules on mandatory sentencing for drug dealers

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday in Burrage v. US [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] to relax sentencing guidelines for drug dealers. Marcus Burrage was convicted of distribution of heroin causing death under 21 USC § 841 [text], and he appealed by challenging the causation instruction the courts were using for § 841. Burrage argued that the statute required the government to prove that heroin was the proximate cause of the user's death, and not just a contributing factor toward the death. The Supreme Court agreed, unanimously ruling that federal prosecutors must prove that the illegal drug actually caused the death of the user and not merely a "contributing cause" in the user's death. Burrage was serving two concurrent 20-year sentences [LAT report] for distribution, but one of his 20-year convictions has been overturned by the Supreme Court's ruling. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

We decline to adopt the Government's permissive interpretation of § 841(b)(1). The language Congress enacted requires death to "result from" use of the unlawfully distributed drug, not from a combination of factors to which drug use merely contributed. Congress could have written § 841(b)(1)(C) to impose a mandatory minimum when the underlying crime "contributes to" death or serious bodily injury, or adopted a modified causation test tailored to cases involving concurrent causes, as five States have done. ... It chose instead to use language that imports but-for causality. Especially in the interpretation of a criminal statute subject to the rule of lenity ... we cannot give the text a meaning that is different from its ordinary, accepted meaning, and that disfavors the defendant.
Justice Samuel Alito refused to join a portion of Scalia's opinion, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote a separate concurring opinion.

The 20 year mandatory sentencing found in § 841 was enacted as part of the "War on Drugs" [JURIST backgrounder], and mandatory minimums stemming from statutes issued during that time have been criticized [JURIST op-ed]. In December US President Barack Obama [official website] commuted [JURIST report] the sentences of eight inmates currently serving lengthly prison terms for crack cocaine offenses, citing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) [text, PDF]. The FSA reduced significant disparities in convictions of drug offenses related to crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Last August US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] announced [JURIST report] that the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] should avoid charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or drug cartels with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences. Holder outlined additional reforms as part of his "Smart on Crime" plan [text, PDF] during a speech to the American Bar Association (ABA) [official website].

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.