United States v. Safehouse, No. 20-1422

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBIBAS, Circuit Judge.
Citation985 F.3d 225
Parties UNITED STATES of America v. SAFEHOUSE, a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation; José Benitez, as President and Treasurer of Safehouse Safehouse, a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation v. U.S. Department of Justice; William P. Barr, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the United States; and William M. McSwain, in his official capacity as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania United States of America, U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney General William P. Barr, and the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William M. McSwain, Appellants
Docket NumberNo. 20-1422
Decision Date12 January 2021

985 F.3d 225

UNITED STATES of America
v.
SAFEHOUSE, a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation; José Benitez, as President and Treasurer of Safehouse

Safehouse, a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation
v.
U.S. Department of Justice; William P. Barr, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the United States; and William M. McSwain, in his official capacity as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

United States of America, U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney General William P. Barr, and the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William M. McSwain, Appellants

No. 20-1422

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

Argued: November 16, 2020
Filed: January 12, 2021


OPINION OF THE COURT

BIBAS, Circuit Judge.

985 F.3d 229

Though the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law. Drug users die every day of overdoses. So Safehouse, a nonprofit, wants to open America's first safe-injection site in Philadelphia. It favors a public-health response to drug addiction, with medical staff trained to observe drug use, counteract overdoses, and offer treatment. Its motives are admirable. But Congress has made it a crime to open a property to others to use drugs. 21 U.S.C. § 856. And that is what Safehouse will do.

Because Safehouse knows and intends that its visitors will come with a significant purpose of doing drugs, its safe-injection site will break the law. Although Congress passed § 856 to shut down crack houses, its words reach well beyond them. Safehouse's benevolent motive makes no difference. And even though this drug use will happen locally and Safehouse will welcome visitors for free, its safe-injection site falls within Congress's power to ban interstate commerce in drugs.

Safehouse admirably seeks to save lives. And many Americans think that federal drug laws should move away from law

985 F.3d 230

enforcement toward harm reduction. But courts are not arbiters of policy. We must apply the laws as written. If the laws are unwise, Safehouse and its supporters can lobby Congress to carve out an exception. Because we cannot do that, we will reverse and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

A. The federal drug laws

Drug addiction poses grave social problems. The opioid crisis has made things worse: more than a hundred Americans die every day of an overdose. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., Office of the Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Spotlight on Opioids 1 (2018). People of good will disagree about how to tackle these enormous problems. Lawmakers and prosecutors have traditionally used criminal prosecution to try to stem the flow, targeting the supply and hoping to curb demand. Others emphasize getting users into rehab. Harm-reduction proponents favor treating drug users without requiring them to abstain first. Still others favor decriminalizing or even legalizing drugs. There is no consensus and no easy answer.

But our focus is on what Congress has done, not what it should do. Congress has long recognized that illegal drugs "substantial[ly]" harm "the health and general welfare of the American people." 21 U.S.C. § 801(2). Indeed, half a century ago, Congress tackled this national problem by consolidating scattered drug laws into a single scheme: the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Pub. L. 91-513, 84 Stat. 1236 (codified as amended at 21 U.S.C. §§ 801 – 971 ); see Gonzales v. Raich , 545 U.S. 1, 10–12, 125 S.Ct. 2195, 162 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005). To this day, this scheme governs the federal approach to illegal drugs.

Title II of that law, the Controlled Substances Act, broadly regulates illegal drugs. The Act spells out many crimes. A person may not make, distribute, or sell drugs. 21 U.S.C. § 841. He may not possess them. § 844. He may not take part in a drug ring. § 848. He may not sell drug paraphernalia. § 863. He may not conspire to do any of these banned activities. § 846. And he may not own or maintain a "drug-involved premises": a place for using, sharing, or producing drugs. § 856.

This last crime—the one at issue—was added later. At first, the Act said nothing about people who opened their property for drug activity. Then, the 1980s saw the rise of crack houses: apartments or houses (often abandoned) where people got together to buy, sell, use, or even cook drugs. See United States v. Lancaster , 968 F.2d 1250, 1254 n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1992). These "very dirty and unkempt" houses blighted their neighborhoods, attracting a stream of unsavory characters at all hours. Id. But it was hard to shut crack houses down. To go after owners, police and prosecutors tried to cobble together conspiracy and distribution charges. See, e.g. , United States v. Jefferson , 714 F.2d 689, 691–92 (7th Cir. 1983), vacated on other grounds , 474 U.S. 806, 106 S.Ct. 41, 88 L.Ed.2d 34 (1985). But no law targeted the owner or maintainer of the premises.

To plug this gap, Congress added a new crime: 21 U.S.C. § 856. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-570, § 1841, 100 Stat. 3207, 3207–52. This law banned running a place for the purpose of manufacturing, selling, or using drugs. Congress later extended this crime to reach even temporary drug premises and retitled it from "Establishment of manufacturing operations" to "Maintaining drug-involved premises." Compare 21 U.S.C. § 856(a) & caption (2003) with 21 U.S.C. § 856(a) &

985 F.3d 231

caption (1986). After all, the statute covers much more than manufacturing drugs.

B. Safehouse's safe-injection site

The parties have stipulated to the key facts: Safehouse wants to try a new approach to combat the opioid crisis. It plans to open the country's first safe-injection site. Safehouse is headed by José Benitez, who also runs Prevention Point Philadelphia. Like Prevention Point and other sites, Safehouse will care for wounds, offer drug treatment and counseling, refer people to social services, distribute overdose-reversal kits, and exchange used syringes for clean ones.

But unlike other sites, Safehouse will also feature a consumption room. Drug users may go there to inject themselves with illegal drugs, including heroin and fentanyl. The consumption room is what will make Safehouse unique—and legally vulnerable.

When a drug user visits the consumption room, a Safehouse staffer will give him a clean syringe as well as strips to test drugs for contaminants. Staffers may advise him on sterile injection techniques but will not provide, dispense, or administer any controlled drugs. The user must get his drugs before he arrives and bring them to Safehouse; he may not share or trade them on the premises. The drugs he consumes will be his own.

After he uses them, Safehouse staffers will watch him for signs of overdose. If needed, they will intervene with medical care, including respiratory support and overdose-reversal agents. Next, in an observation room, counselors will refer the visitor to social services and encourage drug treatment.

Safehouse hopes to save lives by preventing diseases, counteracting drug overdoses, and encouraging drug treatment. It believes that visitors are more likely to accept counseling and medical care "after they have consumed drugs and are not experiencing withdrawal symptoms." App. 685.

C. Procedural history

The Government sought a declaratory judgment that Safehouse's consumption room would violate § 856(a)(2). Safehouse counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment that it would not and that applying the statute to Safehouse would violate either the Commerce Clause or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3 ; 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb – 2000bb-3.

The Government moved for judgment on the pleadings, and the District Court denied the motion. It held that § 856(a)(2) does not apply to Safehouse's proposed consumption room. United States v. Safehouse , 408 F. Supp. 3d 583, 587 (E.D. Pa. 2019). Rather, it held that someone violates § 856(a)(2) only if his purpose is for others to manufacture, distribute, or use illegal drugs on the premises. Id. at 595, 605. And it found that Safehouse's purpose was to offer medical care, encourage treatment, and save lives, not to facilitate drug use. Id. at 614. Because the statute did not apply, the court did not need to reach Safehouse's Commerce Clause or RFRA defenses. After the parties stipulated to a set of facts, the court entered a final declaratory judgment for Safehouse. The Government now appeals. On appeal, Safehouse renews its Commerce Clause defense but reserves its RFRA defense for remand.

We have jurisdiction to hear this appeal. The District Court's declaratory judgment has "the force and effect of a final judgment." 28 U.S.C. § 2201. "Once [the] district court has ruled on all of the issues submitted to it, either deciding them or

985 F.3d 232

declining to do so, the declaratory judgment is complete, final, and appealable." Henglein v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp. , 260 F.3d 201, 211 (3d Cir. 2001). So it does not matter that the court did not reach the...

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8 practice notes
  • United States v. Harra, No. 19-1105
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 12 Enero 2021
    ...who unanimously thought the defendant was guilty but who were not unanimous in their assessment of which act supported the verdict."24 985 F.3d 225 United States v. Beros , 833 F.2d 455, 462 (3d Cir. 1987).In sum, where, as here, we confront "a trial environment that emphasized the [legally......
  • Kajmowicz v. Whitaker, 21-2434
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 21 Julio 2022
    ...elsewhere. See Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co. , 534 U.S. 438, 461-62, 122 S.Ct. 941, 151 L.Ed.2d 908 (2002) ; United States v. Safehouse , 985 F.3d 225, 238 (3d Cir. 2021) ("The public-policy debate 42 F.4th 151 is important, but it is not one for courts."). Still, we acknowledge that most sta......
  • United States v. Ramsey, CRIMINAL ACTION 19-268
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • 25 Febrero 2022
    ...into legislative history is risky business. "A court's job is to parse texts, not psychoanalyze lawmakers." United States v. Safehouse, 985 F.3d 225, 238 (3d Cir. 2021). [6] In his initial briefing before he conceded this point, Mr. Ramsey noted that his trading at issue in this case was be......
  • United States v. Safehouse, No. 20-1422
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 24 Marzo 2021
    ...Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia as Amici Curiae in Support of the Petition for Rehearing En Banc at 6-9, United States v. Safehouse , 985 F.3d 225 (3d Cir. 2021) (No. 20-1422) (hereinafter States’ Amicus). See also Brief of Fourteen Cities and Counties as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellees’......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8 cases
  • United States v. Harra, No. 19-1105
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 12 Enero 2021
    ...who unanimously thought the defendant was guilty but who were not unanimous in their assessment of which act supported the verdict."24 985 F.3d 225 United States v. Beros , 833 F.2d 455, 462 (3d Cir. 1987).In sum, where, as here, we confront "a trial environment that emphasized the [legally......
  • Kajmowicz v. Whitaker, 21-2434
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 21 Julio 2022
    ...elsewhere. See Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co. , 534 U.S. 438, 461-62, 122 S.Ct. 941, 151 L.Ed.2d 908 (2002) ; United States v. Safehouse , 985 F.3d 225, 238 (3d Cir. 2021) ("The public-policy debate 42 F.4th 151 is important, but it is not one for courts."). Still, we acknowledge that most sta......
  • United States v. Ramsey, CRIMINAL ACTION 19-268
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • 25 Febrero 2022
    ...into legislative history is risky business. "A court's job is to parse texts, not psychoanalyze lawmakers." United States v. Safehouse, 985 F.3d 225, 238 (3d Cir. 2021). [6] In his initial briefing before he conceded this point, Mr. Ramsey noted that his trading at issue in this case was be......
  • United States v. Safehouse, No. 20-1422
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 24 Marzo 2021
    ...Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia as Amici Curiae in Support of the Petition for Rehearing En Banc at 6-9, United States v. Safehouse , 985 F.3d 225 (3d Cir. 2021) (No. 20-1422) (hereinafter States’ Amicus). See also Brief of Fourteen Cities and Counties as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellees’......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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