[JURIST] 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].