Burrage v. United States

PETITIONER: Marcus Burrage
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Nevada, Iowa police station

DOCKET NO.: 12-7515
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 571 US (2014)
GRANTED: Apr 29, 2013
ARGUED: Nov 12, 2013
DECIDED: Jan 27, 2014

Angela L. Campbell - for the petitioner (appointed by the Court)
Benjamin J. Horwich - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Marcus Burrage was arrested for distribution of heroin and distribution of heroin resulting in the death of Joshua Banka. A jury found him guilty, and Burrage was sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison. He appealed and argued that the judge allowed inadmissible hearsay into evidence, denied his motion for acquittal, and denied his motion for a new trial based on prosecutorial misconduct and erroneous jury instructions.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision on all counts. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to convict Burrage of the crime. The court also noted that experts presented adequate testimony that Banka would not have died but for the heroin in his system. Additionally, the court held that in-court testimony of the police officer was not hearsay.


1. Does the crime of distribution of drugs causing death require a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement?

2. Can a defendant be found guilty of distribution of drugs causing death when the jury instructions for that crime allow conviction if the heroin "contributed to" death by "mixed drug intoxication" instead of being the sole cause of death?

Media for Burrage v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 2013 in Burrage v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 27, 2014 in Burrage v. United States

The second case not nearly as much fun is Burrage v. United States which is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

A penalty enhancement provision of the Controlled Substances Act 21, U. S. C. Section 841(b)(1)(C) imposes a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence on a defendant who unlawfully distributes a section 1 or a section 2 drug when “death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance.”

The petitioner here Marcus Burrage sold heroin, a schedule one drug to Joshua Banka who died the next day after using the heroin and several other drugs acquired from other sources.

An indictment accusing Burrage of the drug sale also claim that death “resulted from” the words of the statute the use drug does triggering the 20-year minimum enhancement.

At trial, experts testified that heroin contributed to Banka's death, though Banka might have died from the other drugs even if he had not taken the heroin.

Burrage moved to dismiss the death results enhancement arguing that Banka's death did not result from heroin use because there was no evidence that hat was a but for cause of his death.

That is but for, the use of heroin he would not have died.

The District Court denied Burrage's motion and declined to give his proposed jury instructions regarding causation.

Instead, it instructed the jury the Burrage was subject to the enhancement if heroin was a “contributing cause” of Banka's death.

The jury convicted Burrage of the underlying offense and the enhancement and the District Court sentenced him to the 20-year minimum.

The Eight Circuit affirmed, we granted certiorari to consider two questions.

One, whether the enhancement provision applies when use of a controlled substance distributed by the defendant was a contributing cause of the victim's death, and two, whether the enhancement provision requires proof that the victim's death was a foreseeable result of the defendant's drug trafficking offense.

We reached here only the first question.

The statute says that the 20-year minimum penalty applies if death results from use of a drug distributed by the defendant.

Ordinarily the phrase “results from” conveys an actual causality requirement and actual causality is traditionally understood to require proof that the harm would not have occurred in the absence of the defendant's conduct.

For example, when A shoots B and B is a healthy individual before the shooting but dies afterward, A's conduct is but for cause of B's death since B would have lived otherwise.

We have consistently interpreted phrases similar to results from as requiring proof of but for causation and state courts would hear and decide most of the nation's criminal cases have followed the same course.

The government argues that the traditional but for rule will not work because of distinctive problems associated with drug overdoses.People ordinarily take more than one drug.

It urges us to hold that use of a drug distributed by the defendant may not be a but for cause of death so long as it contributes to an aggregate force such as mixed drug intoxication, that is itself, a but for cause of death.

A handful of state courts have been embraced a similar rule.

Congress however enacted a statute that requires death to result from use of the unlawfully distributed drug not from a combination of factors to which the drug use merely contributed.

Congress could have adapted in contributing cause requirement as a few state legislatures have done but it chosen 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 phrase results from an unusual meaning that this favors the defendant.

Because there is no evidence here that Banka's heroin -- Banka's heroin use was sufficient to cause his death alone, we need not consider whether the statutory enhancement would apply if multiple sufficient causes independently but concurrently produce death.

That is if he took enough heroin to kill him, but enough of another drug or several other drugs to kill him.

We simply hold that where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not a but for or independently sufficient cause of the victim's death.

The defendant is not subject to the death results enhancement.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

The Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer and Kagan joined the opinion in full.

Justice Alito joins impart.