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SCOTUS's Bad LSAT Question: Did Drug, Amongst Drugs, Cause Death?

By William Peacock, Esq. on January 27, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Crime: Distribution of a Schedule I or II drug, where "death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance." 21 U.S. C. § 841 (b)(1)(C).

The Punishment: Twenty-year mandatory minimum.

The Elements: That's the question. Obviously, there has to be a drug deal. Here, that's not an issue. Everyone agrees: Burrage sold heroin to the deceased, Mr. Banka. The question is, did Banka's death, which was caused by a lengthy multi-drug bender, "result from" the purchase of heroin from Burrage?

Lower Courts: Contributory Causation

What killed Banka? Was it one drug, or them all? The experts could not determine that the heroin alone would have sufficed to kill Banka, who essentially suffocated after smoking marijuana and shooting up both pain pills and some of the heroin obtained from Burrage. In fact, at trial an expert testified that he may have died even without the heroin.

Nonetheless, the trial court and Eighth Circuit agreed that his conviction could stand if heroin was a "contributing cause" of death.

Confounding variables? B results from A? If A (and other drugs) then B? It's like the worst LSAT question ever!

Scalia, Plus Six: Actual Causation Necessary

Justice Scalia's opinion for the majority was pedantic, repetitive, and lengthy. And unfortunately, there was no hilarious Scalia bluster to make up for it. His final section, III-B, was not joined by Justice Alito who recused apparently doesn't join the other conservatives, plus Kagan, in discussing unnecessary policy considerations.

But the meat of Scalia's opinion is this: "results from" requires actual causation.

"[R]esults from" isn't defined by statute, so the court uses the plain meaning. The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines "results" as "arise[s] as an effect, issue, or outcome from some action, process or design." In other words, causation.

As we all know from 1L year, there is actual and proximate causation. The Court declined to address proximate causation for now, but held that:

"where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim's death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable under the penalty enhancement provision [...] unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury."

Ginsburg, Plus Sotomayor: Vague Statute? Interpret in Defendant's Favor

Scalia mentioned the Rule of Lenity in passing, and Ginsburg, who disagreed with Scalia's statutory interpretation ("I do not agree that words 'appear[ing] in two or more legal rules, and so in connection with more than one purpose, ha[ve] and should have precisely the same scope in all of them.' [citation]"), ran with it.

The Rule of Lenity in short: vague statutes should not be interpreted against the defendant.

Fun (Foot)Note

Scalia emphasizes interpreting the statute as written, using the plain meaning of the words deliberately chosen by the drafters. Yet, in the second footnote, he notes that the sloppily-drafted statute accidently allows probation for the offense. (Mandatory minimum, yet probation? That's definitely a "scrivener's error.")

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