Notice and Drug Crimes – Burrage v. United States
A Two Part Series
All individuals charged with a crime are entitled to notice. This means that a named defendant in a criminal case must be made aware of the charges against him/her and when the violations were committed. On Nov. 12, 2013 the United States Supreme Court, in the case Burrage v. United States, heard argument regarding the proper notice for drug dealers in cases where a person overdoses and dies.
Marcus Burrage was sentenced to additional prison time when one of his clients, who had purchased heroin from him, died the following day. At issue, in the case, was, what was the actual cause of death of the drug buyer- was it the use of the purchased heroin or was that only a contributing factor? The doctors who testified at trial could not definitively say that the heroin was the cause of death. But, the trial judge seemed to overlook this detail and instructed the jury that it only needed to find that the heroin contributed to the death, it did not have to be the actual cause. As a result, Burrage was convicted and sentenced to an additional twenty years as a result. This additional sentence was the basis for the case ultimately being appealed and argued before the United States Supreme Court..
The case stemmed from a 1986 law that added on additional prison time, up to life in some cases, for a person convicted of selling drugs wherein the buyer of the illegal drugs ultimately dies. The main point of contention was when the additional time for the resulting death was appropriate and the Supreme Court had two different options to choose from. 1) When the drug sold in the transaction produced death itself or 2) if the drug sold was simply a “contributing cause of the death.”