McFadden v. United States

PETITIONER: Stephen D. McFadden
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia (Charlottesville)

DOCKET NO.: 14-378
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 576 US (2015)
GRANTED: Jan 16, 2015
ARGUED: Apr 21, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2015

Kevin K. Russell - for the petitioner
Sarah E. Harrington - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Stephen McFadden sold overstocked products on the Internet to augment his income. In 2011, McFadden noticed that a lot of businesses where he lived were selling a product known as "bath salts," an aromatherapy product that emits a stimulating vapor when burned. After confirming that bath salts were not illegal, McFadden began selling them like his other products. He continued to sell them until he learned they had been placed on the list of substances that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) prohibited.

The government prosecuted McFadden under the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986, which allows substances not listed as "controlled" to be treated as illegal if the analogue has effects and a chemical make-up that are "substantially similar" to those listed in the CSA. At trial, McFadden argued that the state needed to prove that he was aware, or actively resisted finding out, that the bath salts were substantially similar to a controlled substance and constituted an analogue. Instead, the district court held that the state only needed to prove that the petitioner knew "the products were intended for human consumption." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.


To convict someone under the Controlled Substances Analogue Act, does the government need to prove that the defendant knew the substance was an analogue to a controlled substance?

Media for McFadden v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2015 in McFadden v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has the opinion of the court in two cases this morning.

Clarence Thomas:

The first case I have is McFadden v. United States No. 14-378.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Petitioner Stephen McFadden came to the attention of law enforcement agents because he was supplying a Charlottesville video store with certain recreational drugs known as bath salts; a sentence which I completely do not understand.

Those drugs have chemical structures substantially similar to controlled substances and are capable of producing effects substantially similar to those produced by controlled substances.

Under Federal Law these features qualify the drugs as “controlled substances analogues.”

McFadden eventually was convicted of eight counts of distribution of such analogues.

On appeal he argued that the District Court should have instructed the jury that it could not convict him unless he knew the chemical structure and pharmacological effects of the substances that brought them within the definition of controlled substance analogues.

The Fourth Circuit rejected the argument, concluding that McFadden needed only to intend the substances to be consumed by humans.

It therefore affirmed his convictions.

In an opinion filed with the court today we reverse the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remand for further proceedings.

Under the Controlled Substances Act it is “unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally” to possess with the intent to distribute a controlled substance.

That intent requirement is met either if defendant knows he possesses a substance that is controlled even if he does not know its identity, or if he knows the identity of the substance he possessed; even if he does not know that it is controlled.

Because the Federal Analogue Act instructs courts to treat controlled substance analogues as controlled substances the same mental state applies to prosecutions involving analogues.

A defendant has the requisite intent if he knows he possesses some substance regulated under the Controlled Substances Act or the Analogue Act or if he knows the features of the substance that make it an analogue.

The jury instruction in this case did not adequately convey this required mental state.

For these reasons and others set forth in our opinion we reverse the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remand for that court to consider whether the jury instruction error here was harmless or not.

The Chief Justice has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.