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State v. Jeffries – 6th Circuit Finds No Proximate Cause Requirement for Controlled Substance Act Sentence Enhancement

In United States v. Jeffries, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals
confronted the issue of whether a sentence enhancement for selling drugs that cause the death of the user requires proof that the drugs were the proximate cause of death.

Appellant Jeffries had sold fentanyl to a woman who overdosed and died. At trial, medical experts for the Government testified that the amount of fentanyl in her system was “significantly above the lethal level,” and that no other “anatomical issues” could have caused her death. Jeffries was charged with distributing a Schedule II substance under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), a part of the Controlled Substance Act. Based on the amount of drugs Jeffries sold, 21 U.S.C § (b)(1)(C) set his maximum penalty at twenty years. However, if death or injury results from the use of the drugs sold by the defendant, the maximum penalty becomes life imprisonment.

Because the “death results” enhancement increases the maximum penalty for the offense, the 6th Amendment right to a jury applies to this issue under Apprendi v. New Jersey. The Supreme Court had previously applied Apprendi to § 841’s “death results” enhancement in Burrage v. US, in which it held that the enhancement requires proof that the drugs were the but-for cause of death. In that case, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction, where the evidence at trial showed that the victim had ingested several drugs at once, and it could not be determined that the heroin sold by the defendant would have caused death by itself. The Court left open the question of whether the enhancement also requires proof of proximate cause.

In Jeffries, the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio
rejected the defendant’s request for a jury instruction requiring the state to
prove that the drugs were the proximate cause of death. The defendant was convicted, and subsequently filed a motion for a new trial. The District Court held that it had erred in denying the defendant’s request for a jury instruction, and granted the motion for a new trial on that basis. The
government appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the sentencing enhancement only requires proof of but-for cause. The court first noted the ordinary meaning of the statutory language “results from” only implies but-for causation, not proximate cause. The court next explained that the broader statutory context also supported its conclusion, stating that “use of a schedule I or II controlled substance is inherently dangerous. Death to the drug user is therefore always foreseeable when a defendant manufactures, distributes, dispenses, or possesses with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense those substances.”

The court therefore held that Congress, by creating the sentencing
enhancement, had abrogated the common law principle that criminal liability requires both proximate and but-for cause. The court also noted that all circuit courts that had addressed the issue reached the same conclusion.

The court distinguished the case from US v. Martinez, in which the
6th circuit held that similar “results from” language in a different statute
required proximate causation. The statute at issue in Martinez was a
sentencing enhancement for health care fraud, which applied where the fraud caused death. The Jeffries court stated that “ in circumstances in
which the potential for injury or death is not an inherently foreseeable result. . . it might make sense to require the government to prove that it was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the conduct would be likely to lead to injury or death.” By contrast, since it is “always foreseeable that” the sale of schedule I or II drugs “will involve an ultimate user of the
substance, and that death or injury may result from that use,” and therefore, “it makes sense to require the government to prove only but-for causation in order to apply the enhanced penalty.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Bernice Bouie Donald wrote that she would
have affirmed the District Court in requiring the government to prove proximate cause. The dissent found little persuasive value in the out-of-circuit cases which had not found a requirement of proximate cause. The dissent pointed out that the Fourth Circuit had been the first to make this holding in US v. Patterson, and that all other circuit courts that had decided the issue essentially cited to Patterson with little or no analysis.
For that reason, Judge Donald concluded that “although the cases look
impressive as a whole, a cursory inspection of each case reveals that they
stand on uneasy footing, and should not be given the persuasive value proscribed by the majority.”

The dissent also took issue with the majority’s attempt to distinguish the
case from Martinez, pointing out that the court had treated near
identical language as ambiguous in one statute, and unambiguous in another. Judge Donald wrote:

The majority also explicitly argues that it is always reasonably foreseeable
that death will result if someone manufactures, distributes, dispenses, or
possess with intent to do any of those things . . .If that is the case, then
why would the Court not impose a proximate cause requirement for the rare case when it was not foreseeable?”

The dissent placed rightful skepticism in the majority’s assumption that
congress had intended to displace the common law rule requiring both but-for and proximate cause. The fact that death is almost always a foreseeable result of selling drugs is a thin justification for deciding Congress has abrogated the common law in this case, but not in the case of the statute at issue in Martinez. Even accepting the court’s argument, cases where proximate cause is a genuine issue for the jury are not hard to imagine. For example, consider a drug user who drives while intoxicated and dies as the result of an accident. Are the drugs the proximate cause of death? What if the drugged driver instead causes the death of another? While these situations may be outliers, they are not so far-fetched as to make a proximate cause requirement unnecessary. Requiring proof of proximate cause would therefore be more in line with Apprendi and its progeny.