Supreme Court Rules That The Enhancement For Death Or Serious Bodily Injury Of A User Applies Only Where The Drug Sale Was The “But-For Cause” Of The Death Or Injury

On January 27, 2014, the Supreme Court, in Burrage v. United States, unanimously held that the twenty-year mandatory minimum under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C), which applies where “death or serious bodily injury results from the use” of a drug sold by the accused, applies only where that drug was the “but-for-cause” of the death or injury.  Under the “but-for-cause” standard, the drug must be the sole cause of the death or injury rather than just one of a combination of drugs that each contributed to the death or injury; in other words, the person would not have died or suffered serious bodily injury if he or she had not used the drug sold to them by the accused.  Prior to the Court’s decision in Burrage, federal courts had interpreted the phrase “results from the use” as including cases where one drug played a role in the result or injury even though it was not the sole cause of that outcome.

In Burrage, Burrage sold heroin to a user who died the next day after hours of what the Court described as a “drug binge” that included several different drugs.  Pursuant to the standard being applied by the federal courts at the time of Burrage’s trial, the trial judge instructed the jury that it need only find that the heroin from Burrage contributed to the user’s death.  Based on this standard, Burrage was convicted and sentenced to twenty years.  The Court held that the prosecution had not introduced evidence that the heroin sold by Burrage was the “but-for-cause” of the user’s death and reversed Burrage’s conviction.  This decision is significant because drug users often use more than one drug at a time.