United States v. Jeffries, No. 18-4081

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtALICE M. BATCHELDER, Circuit Judge.
Citation958 F.3d 517
Docket NumberNo. 18-4081
Decision Date08 May 2020
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jurmaine A. JEFFRIES, Defendant-Appellee.

958 F.3d 517

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Jurmaine A. JEFFRIES, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 18-4081

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Argued: October 17, 2019
Decided and Filed: May 8, 2020


ALICE M. BATCHELDER, Circuit Judge.

A jury convicted Jurmaine Jeffries of drug-related offenses, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). The district court granted Jeffries's motion for a new trial, finding that it erroneously failed to include jury instructions that required the United States to prove proximate causation in addition to but-for causation. On appeal, the United States argues that § 841(b)(1)(C) requires proof of only but-for causation. We agree and therefore REVERSE and REMAND for sentencing.

I.

On September 16, 2016, police officers discovered J.H. deceased in her home. Near J.H.'s body lay an array of drug paraphernalia, including a small bag of brown powder, later determined to be .58 grams of fentanyl. The officers found text messages in J.H.'s cellphone that indicated that she had attempted to buy or had bought drugs from Jeffries earlier that day. The officers, pretending to be J.H., texted Jeffries and requested more drugs.

Forty-five minutes later, Jeffries arrived at J.H.'s home and the officers arrested him. A search of Jeffries's car revealed separately packaged bags holding 1.69 grams of fentanyl, as well as a cellphone containing the text messages sent from J.H.'s cellphone. In Jeffries's pocket, the officers found $446 and another bag of fentanyl, containing 36.14 grams of fentanyl.

Jeffries was charged with one count of possessing fentanyl with intent to distribute and one count of distributing fentanyl, the use of which resulted in death. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). At trial, two medical experts testified that the amount of fentanyl in J.H.'s system was "significantly above the lethal level" and that no other "anatomical issues" could have caused J.H.'s death. R. 143, PageID#: 1662, 1664.

Jeffries asked the district court to instruct the jury that, to impose § 841(b)(1)(C)'s sentencing enhancement, the government was required to "prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the death of J.H. was the natural and foreseeable result of the defendant's actions." R. 104, PageID#: 709. The district court, however, declined Jeffries's proposed jury instruction and instead told the jury that to convict under § 841(b)(1)(C) :

the [g]overnment must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that but for the use of
958 F.3d 519
the drugs the Defendant distributed, [J.H.] would not have died. "But for" causation exist[s] where death would not have occurred had the controlled substance distributed by the Defendant not been ingested by [J.H.]. In other words, there is "but for" causation where use of the controlled substance, combined with other factors to produce death and death would not have occurred without the incremental effect of the controlled substance.

R 144, PageID#: 1825. The jury returned a guilty verdict on both counts and found that § 841(b)(1)(C)'s sentencing enhancement applied to the distribution count.

Jeffries filed a motion for a new trial, alleging that the district court committed substantial legal error by failing to give his proposed proximate-cause jury instruction. The district court viewed § 841(b)(1)(C)'s language as ambiguous and therefore turned to "traditional background principles of criminal liability" to insert a proximate-cause requirement into the penalty enhancement. United States v. Jeffries , No. 5:16-cr-180, 2018 WL 9811109, at *5 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 1, 2018). The district court accordingly held that it had made a substantial legal error by failing to include the proximate-cause jury instruction and granted Jeffries's motion for a new trial. Id. at *8. The United States timely appealed from the district court's judgment.

II.

The sole issue on appeal is whether the district court properly construed § 841(b)(1)(C) to require proof of proximate causation. Because this is an issue of statutory interpretation, we review de novo. In re Application to Obtain Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings , 939 F.3d 710, 717 (6th Cir. 2019).

A.

The Controlled Substances Act, Pub. L. No. 91-513, 84 Stat. 1242, codified at 21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq ., sets maximum and minimum penalties for drug offenses, tying the penalty for the offense to both the type of drug and the quantity involved. Burrage v. United States , 571 U.S. 204, 208–09, 134 S.Ct. 881, 187 L.Ed.2d 715 (2014). Here, the relevant offense is § 841(a)(1), which makes it unlawful to knowingly or intentionally manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense a Schedule I or II substance. The Act categorizes fentanyl as a Schedule II substance—a drug that has "a high potential for abuse" and one that might "lead to severe psychological or physical dependence." § 812(b)(2).

Section 841(b)(1)(C) sets the maximum penalty for a violation of § 841(a)(1) and imposes a sentence of not more than twenty years. If, however, "death or injury results from the use of such substance," a defendant "shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than twenty years or more than life." § 841(b)(1)(C). As § 841(b)(1)(C)'s penalty enhancement increases the statutory maximum penalty, it must be charged in the indictment and proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution. See Alleyne v. United States , 570 U.S. 99, 107–08, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 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).

The Supreme Court interpreted § 841(b)(1)(C)'s "results from" language in Burrage v. United States , 571 U.S. 204, 134 S.Ct. 881, 187 L.Ed.2d 715 (2014). In Burrage , a known drug addict died after injecting heroin distributed by the defendant. Id. at 206, 134 S.Ct. 881. Medical experts could only conclude that the "heroin was a contributing factor" without which the addict's death "would have been

958 F.3d 520

very less likely." Id. at 207, 134 S.Ct. 881 (internal quotation and editing marks omitted). The district court declined the defendant's jury instructions that required proof of but-for and proximate causation. Id. at 207–08, 134 S.Ct. 881. The jury was instead instructed that, to convict under § 841(b)(1)(C), the government need prove only that the heroin distributed by the defendant was a "contributing cause" of death. Id. at 208, 134 S.Ct. 881. The Supreme Court rejected the district court's contributing-cause jury instruction and held that a defendant cannot be liable under the death-enhancement provision unless the drug use is a but-for cause of the death. Id. at 218–19, 134 S.Ct. 881. The question of whether § 841(b)(1)(C) requires proof of proximate causation, however, went unanswered. See id. at 208, 218–19, 134 S.Ct. 881.

Whether § 841(b)(1)(C)'s penalty enhancement requires proof of proximate causation is a question of first impression for this court.1 We note, however, that every sister circuit to address the question (before and after Burrage ) holds that the penalty enhancement does not require proof of proximate causation. See United States v. Harden , 893 F.3d 434, 447–49 (7th Cir. 2018), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 394, 202 L.Ed.2d 300 (2018) ; United States v. Alvarado , 816 F.3d 242, 249–50 (4th Cir. 2016), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S. Ct. 492, 196 L.Ed.2d 408 (2016) ; United States v. Burkholder , 816 F.3d 607, 617–18 (10th Cir. 2016), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S. Ct. 623, 196 L.Ed.2d 532 (2017) (interpreting similar language in § 841(b)(1)(E) ); United States v. Webb , 655 F.3d 1238, 1254–55 (11th Cir. 2011) ; United States v. De La Cruz , 514 F.3d 121, 137–38 (1st Cir. 2008) ; United States v. Houston , 406 F.3d 1121, 1124–25 (9th Cir. 2005) ; United States v. Carbajal , 290 F.3d 277, 283–85 (5th Cir. 2002) ; United States v. McIntosh , 236 F.3d 968, 972–73 (8th Cir. 2001) (abrogated on other grounds by Burrage , 571 U.S. at 204, 134 S.Ct. 881 ); United States v. Robinson , 167 F.3d 824, 830–32 (3d Cir. 1999) ; United States v. Patterson , 38 F.3d 139, 144–45 (4th Cir. 1994).2

B.

We begin with the ordinary meaning of § 841(b)(1)(C)'s "results from" language. "A thing ‘results’ when it ‘arises as an effect, issue, or outcome from some action, process or design.’ " Burrage , 571 U.S. at 210–11, 134 S.Ct. 881 (internal editing marks omitted) (quoting 2 The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2570 (1993)). The proper inquiry then is whether death arose as an effect, issue, or outcome from drug use. The causal relationship is accordingly between the decedent's use of the controlled substance and the resultant death. A proximate-cause or foreseeability requirement misunderstands the causal relationship between the conduct proscribed by § 841(a)(1) and the death from the use of a Schedule I or II drug. The question under this statute's language is whether death resulted from

958 F.3d 521

use of the controlled substance—not whether death was a foreseeable result of the defendant's § 841(a)(1) violation.

The specific context in which the "results from"...

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12 practice notes
  • United States v. Williams, Nos. 18-6343/19-5745/5764
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • May 26, 2021
    ...of not more than twenty years" unless the use of the substance results in "death or serious bodily injury." United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2020) (quoting § 841(b)(1)(C) ). If that is the case, the defendant "shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less t......
  • United States v. Sadler, s. 19-2217/2221/20-1177
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • January 21, 2022
    ...from" language requires a showing of proximate causation, which includes a foreseeability requirement. See United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 520 (6th Cir. 2020). Defendants thus argue that the district court erred by giving the following jury instruction:In determining whether the s......
  • United States v. Davis, No. 19-3094
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 14, 2020
    ...§ 841(b). Section 841(b)(1)(C) lists the sentences for fentanyl, a controlled substance in Schedule II. See United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2020). This subparagraph imposes a mandatory life sentence if a defendant with a prior felony drug conviction distributes an il......
  • United States v. Mahaffey, No. 19-6061
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • December 18, 2020
    ...v. Williams , 641 F.3d 758, 764 (6th Cir. 2011). So we review this issue of statutory interpretation de novo. United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2020).B. Contrary to Mahaffey's position, we, along with our sister circuits, have consistently held that for drug-traffickin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
12 cases
  • United States v. Williams, Nos. 18-6343/19-5745/5764
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • May 26, 2021
    ...of not more than twenty years" unless the use of the substance results in "death or serious bodily injury." United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2020) (quoting § 841(b)(1)(C) ). If that is the case, the defendant "shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less t......
  • United States v. Sadler, s. 19-2217/2221/20-1177
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • January 21, 2022
    ...from" language requires a showing of proximate causation, which includes a foreseeability requirement. See United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 520 (6th Cir. 2020). Defendants thus argue that the district court erred by giving the following jury instruction:In determining whether the s......
  • United States v. Davis, No. 19-3094
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 14, 2020
    ...§ 841(b). Section 841(b)(1)(C) lists the sentences for fentanyl, a controlled substance in Schedule II. See United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2020). This subparagraph imposes a mandatory life sentence if a defendant with a prior felony drug conviction distributes an il......
  • United States v. Mahaffey, No. 19-6061
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • December 18, 2020
    ...v. Williams , 641 F.3d 758, 764 (6th Cir. 2011). So we review this issue of statutory interpretation de novo. United States v. Jeffries , 958 F.3d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2020).B. Contrary to Mahaffey's position, we, along with our sister circuits, have consistently held that for drug-traffickin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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