Tuesday, January 28, 2014
The degree of causation necessary to impose legal blame is an interesting philosophical, policy and, of course, legal issue. It is an issue that probably arises more often in tort than criminal cases, but is nonetheless important in criminal law in several areas, including sentencing considerations.
In Burrage v. United States, ___ U.S. ___ (12-7515, January 27, 2014), the Supreme Court considered the meaning of the term "result from" in a case where the district court imposed a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence upon a defendant for the sale of one gram of heroin since a buyer's death had "result[ed] from" the use of the heroin as one of several drugs he consumed that contributed to the death.
Burrage was convicted of distribution of narcotics to Banka, who died after imbibing the heroin and several other drugs. Medical experts at trial could not rule out that Banka might have died from using the other drugs even if he had not taken the heroin, but opined that the heroin use was a contributing factor to his death.
The district court declined to accept the defense contention that the statutory term "result from" required a "but-for" standard. Instead, it construed the phrase to mean that the drug sold had only to be a "contributing cause" of the death and so charged the jury. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.
In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Scalia (who has authored some of the most innovative and pro-defense decisions by the Court in recent years), the Court reversed, ruling that the term "result from" should be construed in its "ordinary meaning" to require a "but-for" standard of causation -- that the harm would not have resulted "but for" the defendant's conduct. It was, therefore, the Court found, not enough for the trier of fact to find that the drug transfer was merely a "contributing factor" to the death. The opinion discussed the Model Penal Code, the Restatement of Torts, baseball, and the rule of lenity, as well as the Court's recent restrictive reading of the term "because of" in discrimination cases, a discussion which triggered a special concurrence by Justice Ginsberg (which she apparently would not have felt the need to write "but for" that discussion).
The government, not untypically, made a doomsday argument that defining "result from" as the Court did would "unduly limit criminal liability" and "cannot be reconciled with sound policy." The Court disagreed, doubting that the opinion would prove to be a "policy disaster."
Although very unlikely to be a "disaster," the opinion may have ramifications beyond drug cases. The issue of what consequences resulted from the defendant's conduct arises frequently in homicide and assault cases, and also occasionally in white-collar cases, for instance in determining the amount of loss or harm for sentencing purposes. At the least, it appears that in federal criminal law the term "result from" now will have a more narrow meaning than previously.