Brief filed: 06/09/2022
Luna-Aquino v. United States
United States Supreme Court; Case No. 21-7958
This case presents the question of the appropriate mens rea requirement for substantive drug offenses under 21 U.S.C. § 960. Section 960(a), which codifies the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, prohibits “knowingly or intentionally” importing or exporting a controlled substance. Section 960(b), in turn, specifies a series of aggravated offenses—and correspondingly severe punishments—based on the type and quantity of the “controlled substance” involved. See 21 U.S.C. § 960(b). A defendant who imports or distributes 280 grams of crack-cocaine, for instance, faces a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison. Id. § 960(b)(1)(C). A defendant who imports or distributes the same amount of marijuana faces no mandatory minimum and only a five-year statutory maximum. Id. § 960(b)(4) (cross-referencing id. § 841(b)(1)(D)). The question in this case is whether the government can subject a defendant to these escalating mandatory minimums and maximums without proving that he knew which illegal drug he was importing or the quantity of that illegal drug. The answer is no: Courts presume a statutory mens rea requirement applies to “all the material elements of the offense.” Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191, 2195 (2019) (internal citation omitted). And any fact that increases the statutory minimum or maximum under Section 960 (or any other statute) is an element of an offense. See Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, 116 (2013); Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 476–85 (2000). Therefore, defendants must know what drug they were importing before a court can subject them to statutorily increased sentences. See United States v. Collazo, 984 F.3d 1308, 1338 (9th Cir. 2021) (en banc) (Fletcher, J., dissenting).
Jessica Stengel, Davina Chen, and Judith Mitzner, National Association of Federal Defenders, Salt Lake City, UT; Jeffrey L. Fisher, O'Melveney & Myers, Menlo Park, CA; Kendall Turner, O'Melveny & Myers, Washington, DC; Branton Nestor, O'Melveny & Myers, Newport Beach, CA.