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At least where use of a drug distributed by a defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of a victim’s death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable under the penalty enhancement provision of 21 U.S.C.S. § 841(b)(1)(C) unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury.
Long-time drug user Banka died following an extended binge that included using heroin purchased from petitioner Burrage. Burrage pleaded not guilty to a superseding indictment alleging, inter alia, that he had unlawfully distributed heroin and that “death . . . resulted from the use of th[at] substance”--thus subjecting Burrage to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence under the penalty enhancement provision of the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U. S. C. §841(b)(1)(C). After medical experts testified at trial that Banka might have died even if he had not taken the heroin, Burrage moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing that Banka's death could only “result from” heroin use if there was evidence that heroin was a but-for cause of death. The court denied the motion and, as relevant here, instructed the jury that the Government only had to prove that heroin was a contributing cause of death. The jury convicted Burrage, and the court sentenced him to 20 years. In affirming, the Eighth Circuit upheld the District Court's jury instruction.
Was Burrage subject to liability for penalty enhancement under 21 U.S.C.S. § 841(b)(1)(C)?
The Supreme Court held that where use of a drug distributed by a defendant was not an independently sufficient cause of a victim’s death or serious bodily injury, the defendant could not be liable for penalty enhancement under § 841(b)(1)(C) unless such use was a "but-for" cause of the death or injury. Because the Controlled Substances Act did not define the phrase “results from,” the Court gave the phrase its ordinary meaning, i.e., that a thing “results” when it arises as an effect, issue, or outcome from some action, process, or design. In the usual course, that required proof that the harm would not have occurred in the absence of—that is, "but for"—a defendant’s conduct.