WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday tossed out a conviction against a dealer whose heroin was one of many drugs in the system of a dead addict.
After longtime, multiple drug user Joshua Banka died in April 2010, the widowed Tammy Noragon Banka chose Marcus Burrage out of a photo lineup as "Lil C," the man who sold Banka the heroin he took in the hours leading up to his death.
Noragon Banka said she had also seen her husband use marijuana and oxycodone the day before he died. Authorities found those drugs, as well as alprazolam, clonazepam and baclofen, in the house.
A forensic toxicologist testified that heroin was a contributing factor to Banka's death, but he could not state that Banka would not have died if he had not taken heroin.
The medical examiner who conducted Banka's autopsy said his death was "very less likely" without the heroin, but she also could not state whether Banka would have died without it.
At trial, prosecutors also played a tape of a controlled buy between a confidential police informant and Lil C, as orchestrated by Iowa authorities in November 2009.
A jury in Des Moines ultimately convicted Burrage of heroin distribution and heroin distribution resulting in a death, and the court sentenced him to 20 years in prison, the prescribed minimum under the Controlled Substances Act.
Burrage took his case
to the Supreme Court after the 8th Circuit affirmed in 2012.
The justices were mostly unanimous Monday that the "death results" conviction could not stand.
"The language Congress enacted requires death to 'result from' use of the unlawfully distributed drug, not from a combination of factors to which drug use merely contributed," according to the lead opinion from Justice Antonin Scalia.
Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, North Dakota and Texas all have either adopted laws that impose mandatory minimums when the underlying crime "contributes to" death or serious bodily injury, or adopted a modified causation test tailored to cases involving concurrent causes.
Congress never took that step however. "It chose instead to use language that imports but-for causality," Scalia wrote. "Especially in the interpretation of a criminal statute subject to the rule of lenity, we cannot give the text a meaning that is different from its ordinary, accepted meaning, and that disfavors the defendant."
Though the government argued that a reversal would deal a blow to criminal responsibility, Scalia doubted that "that the requirement of but-for causation for this incremental punishment will prove a policy disaster."
The strength of a contributing factor test is still uncertain, according to the ruling.
"One of the experts in this case, for example, testified that Banka's death would have been '[v]ery less likely' had he not used the heroin that Burrage provided," Scalia wrote. "Is it sufficient that use of a drug made the victim's death 50 percent more likely? Fifteen percent? Five? Who knows. Uncertainty of that kind cannot be squared with the beyond-a-reasonable doubt standard applicable in criminal trials or with the need to express criminal laws in terms ordinary persons can comprehend.
"But in the last analysis, these always-fascinating policy discussions are beside the point. The role of this court is to apply the statute as it is written - even if we think some other approach might '"accor[d] with good policy."' As we have discussed, it is written to require but-for cause."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, concurred in the judgment.
Citing her dissent in a retaliation case
from last year, Ginsburg said that "because of" in the context of antidiscrimination laws should not be read to mean "solely because of."
"And 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 inall of them,'" Ginsburg added. "But I do agree that 'in the interpretation of a criminal statute subject to the rule of lenity,' where there is room for debate, one should not choose the construction 'that disfavors the defendant.'"