The Volokh Conspiracy

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Criminal Law

"SCOTUS Rejects Negligence Standard in 'Pill Mill' Cases"


From T. Markus Funk (a legal scholar, former prosecutor, and my erstwhile coauthor) at Sean Solis, both at Perkins Coie, in Bloomberg Law:

The US Supreme Court issued a significant decision in its Controlled Substances Act (CSA) jurisprudence as applied to the nation's opioid epidemic. At issue in Ruan v. United States was the requisite intent the government must prove to convict a physician under the CSA for the unlawful distribution of controlled substances.

In a significant win for the defense, specifically, and those concerned about imposing criminal liability based on mere negligence, more generally, the Supreme Court held that "[a]fter a [physician] produces evidence that he or she was authorized to dispense controlled substances" (a given in almost every case), "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."

In reaching this holding, the high court unanimously rejected the government's position. In its briefing, the government argued that it should be allowed to convict a physician merely by showing that he or she acted "objectively unreasonably" in misprescribing opioids. In other words, under the government's requested standard, federal prosecutors would de facto only have to show that a prescribing physician acted with negligence. (Notably, this scienter requirement would be lower than the standard necessary to convict a drug trafficker for distributing heroin or cocaine—namely, "knowingly or intentionally.") …