Supreme Court Tackles Two Drug Cases


Last week, the Supreme Court heard two important criminal law cases involving drugs, both of which fit with a larger theme of clarifying what prosecutors must prove before they can successfully convict a defendant of various federal offenses.

The first case involves an appeal by Marcus Burrage, a man from Iowa who was convicted of distributing heroin that led to the death of one of his customers. The other case, of Justus Rosemond, concerns the man’s federal conviction in Utah for aiding and abetting the use of a firearm during drug trafficking. Both men were ultimately convicted and have had their convictions upheld on appeal, with each having been sentenced to more than a decade in prison.

In both cases the defendants appealed their long prison stays. In the case of Burrage, he has argued that prosecutors must show that the heroin he sold was more than just one of several possible causes of death. During his trial, the prosecutors had experts testify that the heroin was a contributing factor in the man’s death as he had also ingested several other drugs prior to his demise. Burrage claims that this fact is legally problematic to the prosecutor’s case because it shows that they failed to definitively link Burrage’s heroin with the victim’s death.

During oral argument, several justices expressed dismay that the government has been given so much latitude in prosecuting defendants for such crimes. The law says that defendants face a minimum 20-year sentence if “death or serious bodily injury” results from the sale of heroin. The problem in Burrage’s case is that while death did occur following the sale of heroin, there was absolutely no evidence put forward by prosecutors to demonstrate that the heroin was what caused the victim’s death.

In Rosemond’s case, the justices heard about how he was found guilty of four charges related to a shooting that took place in Utah back in 2007 following a botched drug deal. Rosemond’s defense attorneys argued that prosecutors should have been required to show that their client took some steps to encourage the use of the firearm that was ultimately discharged during the encounter before he could be convicted of “aiding and abetting.” During his initial trial there was never any evidence put forward to conclude whether it was Rosemond or his accomplice that had acted as the shooter.

Several justices, notably Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said that Rosemond’s 10-year prison sentence seemed a “bit much” given that his involvement was never fully fleshed out and that his participation in the underlying crime only resulted in a four-year sentence. Given some of the unhappiness noted among the justices with the lower court decisions criminal defense attorneys are optimistic that the cases could lead to a stiffening of requirements for prosecutors.

Listen to oral arguments in the Burrage case here.

Listen to oral arguments in the Rosemond case here.