High Court Reversal in Virginia Bath Salts Case

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Imprecise jury instructions in the trial of a bath salts dealer may have tainted the conviction, the mostly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
     The case stems from a 2011 police investigation in Charlottesville, Va., into the production and distribution of the synthetic stimulants nicknamed as bath salts.
     A police raid ultimately yielded two different compounds of bath salts for sale at a local video store owned by Lois McDaniel. This woman in turn identified the supplier as Stephen McFadden.
     Forensic analysis of the products identified their chemical composition as part methylone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). Additional bath salts seized at the store contained these two ingredients plus 4-methylethylcathinone (4-MEC).
     After a jury found McFadden guilty of each of the nine drug-distribution-related charges against him, the court handed down a 33-month sentence.
     McFadden’s appeal hinged on his supposed ignorance that federal law prohibited the distribution of controlled substance analogues like bath salts.
     Though McFadden claimed that the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 was unconstitutionally vague as applied to him, the 4th Circuit affirmed in May 2014.
     The Supreme Court took up the case earlier this year and vacated the underlying judgment Thursday.
     “Because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit approved a jury instruction that did not accurately convey this knowledge requirement, we vacate its judgment and remand for that court to determine whether the error was harmless,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.
     Thomas said Court of Appeals improperly here “that the only mental-state requirement for prosecutions involving controlled substance analogues is … that the analogues be ‘intended for human consumption.'”
     That interpretation is inconsistent with the text and structure of the statutes, the court found.
     “The District Court’s instructions to the jury did not fully convey the mental state required by the Analogue Act,” Thomas wrote. “The jury was instructed only that McFadden had to ‘knowingly and intentionally distribut[e] a mixture or substance that has an actual, intended, or claimed stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system’ substantially similar to that of a controlled substance.”
     Though the United States says any rational jury would have concluded that McFadden was aware that the substances he was distributing were controlled, but precedent dictates that “even the omission of an element from a jury charge is subject to harmless-error analysis,” Thomas wrote.
     With the exception of Chief Justice John Roberts, who concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, the rest of the court joined the opinion in full.
     Roberts took issue with the court’s finding that the government could “satisfy the mental state requirement of Section 841(a)(1) ‘by showing that the defendant knew the identity of the substance he possessed.'”
     In the statute, context “suggests that a defendant needs to know more than the identity of the substance; he needs to know that the substance is controlled,” Roberts wrote.
     “In cases involving well-known drugs such as heroin, a defendant’s knowledge of the identity of the substance can be compelling evidence that he knows the substance is controlled,” he added. “But that is not necessarily true for lesser known drugs. A pop quiz for any reader who doubts the point: Two drugs – dextromethorphan and hydrocodone – are both used as cough suppressants. They are also both used as recreational drugs. Which one is a controlled substance?”
     Roberts reveals hydrocodone as the answer in a footnote.
     The chief justice emphasized that “a person’s lack of knowledge regarding that legal element can be a defense” when “there is a legal element in the definition of the offense.”
     “Here, the argument goes, it is no defense that a defendant did not know it was illegal to possess a controlled substance, but it is a defense that he did not know the substance was controlled,” he added.
     “Ultimately, the court’s statements on this issue are not necessary to its conclusion that the District Court’s jury instructions ‘did not fully convey the mental state required by the Analogue Act.’ Those statements should therefore not be regarded as controlling if the issue arises in a future case.”

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