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Heroin, Mary Jane and Causation: SCOTUS to Hear Overdose Case

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on October 10, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Back in May, the Eighth Circuit case Burrage v. United States was one of the fortunate few to fill a spot in the U.S. Supreme Court's docket for the 2013 Term.

The Court will decide whether the crime of distribution of drugs causing death under 21 U.S.C. § 841 is a strict liability crime, without a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement.

The Ultimate Night-Cap Cocktail

After a man went on a tragic drug binge -- involving heroin, clonazepam, alprazolam, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and even some weed to boot -- he died. The feds ended up charging Marcus Burrage, who supplied the heroin, with distributing a controlled substance and distributing a controlled substance leading to death in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841.

The problem? Burrage only supplied the heroin, not the rest of the drugs and no one -- not even the toxicologist or trial experts -- could tell whether the heroin itself caused the death. Making the cause of death even more complicated to uncover, the deceased also had lung and heart disease.

Proximate Cause v. Contributing Cause

The defense asked for a jury instruction explaining that a conviction was only supported if the prosecution proved that heroin was a proximate cause of the death and that the death must have been a foreseeable result of Burrage's conduct.

The lower court judge rejected the requests and instead gave an instruction allowing a conviction if the heroin was a "contributing cause" with no foreseeability requirement. The jury convicted Burrage and he received the minimum 20 year sentence.

Relying on its precedential ruling in United States v. Monnier, the Eighth Circuit followed in suit with the lower court and explicitly rejected a "proximate cause" standard, too. The court opted for a "contributing cause" standard.

Issues for SCOTUS

According to SCOTUSblog, the issues in the case are:

  1. Whether the crime of distribution of drugs causing death under 21 U.S.C. § 841 is a strict liability crime, without a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement; and
  2. Whether a person can be convicted for distribution of heroin causing death utilizing jury instructions which allow a conviction when the heroin that was distributed "contributed to," death by "mixed drug intoxication," but was not the sole cause of death of a person.

There is a bit of a circuit split on the issue as the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals went the other way and didn't approve of the "contributing cause" language. Instead, the court remanded the case with orders to use the statutory language without embellishment.

I'm sure we can all expect drug dealers, law professors, criminal lawyers and Saul Goodman to keep a close eye on this case.

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