U.S. Supreme Court Rules Government Must Prove Intent In Criminal Cases Against Physicians Charged With Illegally Prescribing Opioids

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Government Must Prove Intent In Criminal Cases Against Physicians Charged With Illegally Prescribing Opioids: The United States Supreme Court stated in its June 27, 2022 opinion: “In each of these two consolidated cases, a doctor was convicted under §841 for dispensing controlled substances not “as authorized.” The question before us concerns the state of mind that the Government must prove to convict these doctors of violating the statute. We hold that the statute’s “knowingly or intentionally” mens rea applies to authorization. After a defendant produces evidence that he or she was authorized to dispense controlled substances, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that he or she was acting in an unauthorized manner, or intended to do so.”

21 U. S. C. §841 makes it a federal crime, “[e]xcept as authorized[,] . . . for any person knowingly or intentionally . . . to manufacture, distribute, or dispense . . . a controlled substance.” A federal regulation authorizes registered doctors to dispense controlled substances via prescription, but only if the prescription is “issued for a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his professional practice.” 21 CFR §1306.04(a).

The two defendants were convicted under §841 for dispensing controlled substances not “as authorized.”

The U.S. Supreme Court stated that in interpreting criminal statutes, there is a longstanding presumption, traceable to the common law, that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state. This culpable mental state is referred to as “scienter,” which means the degree of knowledge necessary to make a person criminally responsible for his or her acts. Given the meaning of scienter, the mens rea read into criminal statutes is often that of knowledge or intent. When a statute is not silent as to mens rea but instead includes a general scienter provision (such as “knowingly or intentionally”), the presumption applies with equal or greater force to the scope of that provision.

The U.S. Supreme Court stated in the cases it was deciding: “Section 841 contains a general scienter provision—“knowingly or intentionally.” And in §841 prosecutions, a lack of authorization is often what separates wrongfulness from innocence. Defendants who produce evidence that they are “authorized” to dispense controlled substances are often doctors dispensing drugs via prescription. We normally would not view such dispensations as inherently illegitimate; we expect, and indeed usually want, doctors to prescribe the medications that their patients need. In §841 prosecutions, then, it is the fact that the doctor issued an unauthorized prescription that renders his or her conduct wrongful, not the fact of the dispensation itself. In other words, authorization plays a “crucial” role in separating innocent conduct—and, in the case of doctors, socially beneficial conduct—from wrongful conduct … A strong scienter requirement helps to diminish the risk of “overdeterrence,” i.e., punishing acceptable and beneficial conduct that lies close to, but on the permissible side of, the criminal line.”

“§841 imposes severe penalties upon those who violate it, including life imprisonment and fines up to $1 million. See §841(b)(1)(C); see generally §841(b). Such severe penalties counsel in favor of a strong scienter requirement … the statute here contains a scienter provision. Section 841 states: “Except as authorized by this subchapter, it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally . . . to manufacture, distribute, or dispense . . . a controlled substance.” (Emphasis added.) … the question here concerns the mental state that applies to a statutory clause (“[e]xcept as authorized”) that does not immediately follow the scienter provision … the statutory clause in question plays a critical role in separating a defendant’s wrongful from innocent conduct … we conclude that the statute’s mens rea applies to that critical clause … Once the defendant meets his or her burden of production, then, the Government must prove lack of authorization beyond a reasonable doubt … And for purposes of a criminal conviction under §841, this requires proving that a defendant knew or intended that his or her conduct was unauthorized.”

The U.S. Supreme Court held: “We conclude that §841’s “knowingly or intentionally” mens rea applies to the “except as authorized” clause. This means that in a §841 prosecution in which a defendant meets his burden of production under §885, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner. We vacate the judgments of the Courts of Appeals below and remand the cases for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Source Xiulu Ruan v. United States, 597 U. S. ____ (2022).

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 4th, 2022 at 5:22 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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