Burrage v. United States

Citation187 L.Ed.2d 715,134 S.Ct. 881,571 U.S. 204
Decision Date27 January 2014
Docket NumberNo. 12–7515.,12–7515.
Parties Marcus Andrew BURRAGE, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Angela L. Campbell, Des Moines, IA, for Petitioner.

Benjamin J. Horwich, Washington, D.C., for Respondent.

Jeffrey T. Green, Ryan C. Morris, Jeremy M. Bylund, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, D.C., Angela L. Campbell, Counsel of Record, Gary Dickey Jr., Dickey & Campbell Law Firm PLC, Des Moines, IA, for Petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Mythili Raman, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Benjamin J. Horwich, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Stephan E. Oestreicher, Jr., Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Respondent.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.*

The Controlled Substances Act imposes a 20–year mandatory minimum sentence on a defendant who unlawfully distributes a Schedule I or II drug, when "death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance." 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)-(C) (2012 ed.). We consider whether the mandatory-minimum provision applies when use of a covered drug supplied by the defendant contributes to, but is not a but-for cause of, the victim's death or injury.


Joshua Banka, a long-time drug user, died on April 15, 2010, following an extended drug binge. The episode began on the morning of April 14, when Banka smoked marijuana at a former roommate's home. Banka stole oxycodone

pills from the roommate before departing and later crushed, cooked, and injected the oxycodone. Banka and his wife, Tammy Noragon Banka (Noragon), then met with petitioner Marcus Burrage and purchased one gram of heroin from him. Banka immediately cooked and injected some of the heroin and, after returning home, injected more heroin between midnight and 1 a.m. on April 15. Noragon went to sleep at around 5 a.m., shortly after witnessing Banka prepare another batch of heroin. When Noragon woke up a few hours later, she found Banka dead in the bathroom and called 911. A search of the couple's home and car turned up syringes, 0.59 grams of heroin, alprazolam and clonazepam tablets, oxycodone pills, a bottle of hydrocodone, and other drugs.

Burrage pleaded not guilty to a superseding indictment alleging two counts of distributing heroin in violation of § 841(a)(1). Only one of those offenses, count 2, is at issue here. (Count 1 related to an alleged distribution of heroin five months earlier than the sale to Banka.) Count 2 alleged that Burrage unlawfully distributed heroin on April 14, 2010, and that "death ... resulted from the use of th[at] substance"—thus subjecting Burrage to the 20–year mandatory minimum of § 841(b)(1)(C).

Two medical experts testified at trial regarding the cause of Banka's death. Dr. Eugene Schwilke, a forensic toxicologist, determined that multiple drugs were present in Banka's system at the time of his death, including heroin metabolites, codeine

, alprazolam, clonazepam metabolites, and oxycodone. (A metabolite is a "product of metabolism," Webster's New International Dictionary 1544 (2d ed. 1950), or, as the Court of Appeals put it, "what a drug breaks down into in the body," 687 F.3d 1015, 1018, n. 2 (C.A.8 2012).) Although morphine, a heroin metabolite, was the only drug present at a level above the therapeutic range—i.e., the concentration normally present when a person takes a drug as prescribed—Dr. Schwilke could not say whether Banka would have lived had he not taken the heroin. Dr. Schwilke nonetheless concluded that heroin "was a contributing factor" in Banka's death, since it interacted with the other drugs to cause "respiratory and/or central nervous system depression." App. 196. The heroin, in other words, contributed to an overall effect that caused Banka to stop breathing. Dr. Jerri McLemore, an Iowa state medical examiner, came to similar conclusions. She described the cause of death as "mixed drug intoxication" with heroin, oxycodone

, alprazolam, and clonazepam all playing a "contributing" role. Id ., at 157. Dr. McLemore could not say whether Banka would have lived had he not taken the heroin, but observed that Banka's death would have been "[v]ery less likely." Id., at 171.

The District Court denied Burrage's motion for a judgment of acquittal, which argued that Banka's death did not "result from" heroin use because there was no evidence that heroin was a but-for cause of death. Id., at 30. The court also declined to give Burrage's proposed jury instructions regarding causation. One of those instructions would have required the Government to prove that heroin use "was the proximate cause of [Banka's] death." Id., at 236. Another would have defined proximate cause as "a cause of death that played a substantial part in bringing about the death," meaning that "[t]he death must have been either a direct result of or a reasonably probable consequence of the cause and except for the cause the death would not have occurred." Id., at 238. The court instead gave an instruction requiring the Government to prove "that the heroin distributed by the Defendant was a contributing cause of Joshua Banka's death." Id., at 241–242. The jury convicted Burrage on both counts, and the court sentenced him to 20 years' imprisonment, consistent with § 841(b)(1)(C)'s prescribed minimum.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed Burrage's convictions. 687 F.3d 1015. As to the causation-in-fact element of count 2, the court held that the District Court's contributing-cause instruction was consistent with its earlier decision in United States v. Monnier, 412 F.3d 859, 862 (C.A.8 2005). See 687 F.3d, at 1021. As to proximate cause, the court held that Burrage's proposed instructions "d[id] not correctly state the law" because "a showing of 'proximate cause' is not required." Id., at 1020 (quoting United States v. McIntosh, 236 F.3d 968, 972–973 (C.A.8 2001) ).

We granted certiorari on two questions: Whether the defendant may be convicted under the "death results" provision (1) when the use of the controlled substance was a "contributing cause" of the death, and (2) without separately instructing the jury that it must decide whether the victim's death by drug overdose was a foreseeable result of the defendant's drug-trafficking offense. 569 U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2049, 185 L.Ed.2d 884 (2013).


As originally enacted, the Controlled Substances Act, 84 Stat. 1242, 21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq., "tied the penalties for drug offenses to both the type of drug and the quantity involved, with no provision for mandatory minimum sentences." DePierre v. United States, 564 U.S. ––––, ––––, 131 S.Ct. 2225, 2229, 180 L.Ed.2d 114 (2011). That changed in 1986 when Congress enacted the Anti–Drug Abuse Act, 100 Stat. 3207, which redefined the offense categories, increased the maximum penalties and set minimum penalties for many offenders, including the "death results" enhancement at issue here. See id ., at 3207–4. With respect to violations involving distribution of a Schedule I or II substance (the types of drugs defined as the most dangerous and addictive1 ) the Act imposes sentences ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment for large-scale distributions, § 841(b)(1)(A), from 5 to 40 years for medium-scale distributions, § 841(b)(1)(B), and not more than 20 years for smaller distributions, § 841(b)(1)(C), the type of offense at issue here. These default sentencing rules do not apply, however, when "death or serious bodily injury results from the use of [the distributed] substance." § 841(b)(1)(A)-(C). In those instances, the defendant "shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which ... shall be not less than twenty years or more than life," a substantial fine, "or both."2 Ibid.

Because the "death results" enhancement increased the minimum and maximum sentences to which Burrage was exposed, it is an element that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. See Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 2162–2163, 186 L.Ed.2d 314 (2013); Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000). Thus, the crime charged in count 2 of Burrage's superseding indictment has two principal elements: (i) knowing or intentional distribution of heroin, § 841(a)(1),3 and (ii) death caused by ("resulting from") the use of that drug, § 841(b)(1)(C).


The law has long considered causation a hybrid concept, consisting of two constituent parts: actual cause and legal cause. H. Hart & A. Honore, Causation in the Law 104 (1959). When a crime requires "not merely conduct but also a specified result of conduct," a defendant generally may not be convicted unless his conduct is "both (1) the actual cause, and (2) the 'legal' cause (often called the 'proximate cause') of the result." 1 W. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 6.4(a), pp. 464–466 (2d ed. 2003) (hereinafter LaFave); see also ALI, Model Penal Code § 2.03, p. 25 (1985). Those two categories roughly coincide with the two questions on which we granted certiorari. We find it necessary to decide only the first: whether the use of heroin was the actual cause of Banka's death in the sense that § 841(b)(1)(C) requires.

The Controlled Substances Act does not define the phrase "results from," so we give it its ordinary meaning. See Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U.S. 179, 187, 115 S.Ct. 788, 130 L.Ed.2d 682 (1995). A thing "results" when it "[a]rise[s] as an effect, issue, or outcome from some action, process or design." 2 The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2570 (1993). "Results from" imposes, in other words, a requirement of actual causality. "In the usual course," this requires proof " 'that the harm would not have occurred' in the absence of—that is, but for—the defendant's conduct." University of Tex. Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 570 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2525, 186...

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