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U.S. v. MCFADDEN, NO. 13-4349

Decided: May 21, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment that found the Appellant guilty of nine counts under the Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (the Act) originating from his distribution of substances prohibited by the Act.

Congress enacted the Act to prohibit underground chemists from creating new drugs that have a similar effect on the human body to drugs that are illegal under federal drug laws.  The Act states that a “controlled substance analogue” intended for human ingestion will be treated as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law.  21 U.S.C. § 813.  Police from the Charlottesville, Virginia area began investigating the use and distribution of “bath salts,” a synthetic stimulant, in July 2011.  When consumed, bath salts have an effect similar to cocaine, methamphetamine, and methcathinone, which are all illegal under federal drug laws.  Police discovered that the bath salts were being sold out of a local video store, and later seized that store’s supply.  The video store’s owner cooperated with the police, told them that the appellant was her supplier, and participated in recorded phone conversations where she placed orders with the appellant for more bath salts.  As a result of the phone calls, police received bath salts from appellant on five separate instances, and led to his indictment in November 2012, where he was charged with nine offenses under the Act.  The jury trial focused on whether certain chemicals in the bath salts counted as “controlled substance analogues” under the Act.  After testimony from experts on both sides, the jury found the defendant guilty of all nine counts, and the defendant appealed.

The Fourth Circuit began with appellant’s argument that the Act was unconstitutional as applied to him because it failed to provide a person of ordinary intelligence notice that his conduct was unlawful.  In particular, (1) the Act uses general terms and does not provide a list of prohibited substances, (2) the Act is subject to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement since there is no statutory guidance on prohibited conduct, and (3) despite appellant’s significant efforts to learn about what he could and could not do under the Act, he was not aware that his distribution of controlled substance analogues qualified as prohibited conduct under the Act.  The Fourth Circuit stated that an act is unconstitutionally vague if it does not describe an offense in a manner such that it is sufficiently defined, and ordinary people understand the type of conduct that is prohibited.  However, referencing an earlier decision, the Fourth Circuit stated that its holding in that case defeated the appellant’s argument that the term “substantially similar” is unconstitutionally vague as applied to the chemicals at issue in his trial because the experts sufficiently addressed the chemical diagrams of the substances at issue and compared them to the chemical structure of ecstasy.  The Fourth Circuit also rejected appellant’s argument that the term “human consumption” is unconstitutionally vague under the Act because it clearly includes the use of a substance by a human being in a way that introduces the substance into the human body.  Further, the Fourth Circuit rejected Appellant’s argument that the Act was unconstitutionally vague because it did not include a list of prohibited substances, and noted the possibility that the rate at which new substances are created would outpace the ability of authorities to identify and catalog those substances in a list.

The Fourth Circuit also found no merit in the appellant’s claim that the Act was subject to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement because the intent element under the Act requires the government to prove that a defendant intended for a human to consume the substance at issue.  In addition, the government must prove the substantial chemical similarity between the alleged analogue substance and the controlled substance.  The Court also rejected the appellant’s claim that he attempted to educate himself on whether the chemicals he was selling were illegal by looking on the DEA’s website, by citing the settled principal that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”  See U.S. v. Mitchell, 209 F.3d 319, 323 (4th Cir. 2000).  The Fourth Circuit reviewed appellant’s claims that the district court erred in certain evidentiary and jury instruction rulings for an abuse of discretion, and found that the district court had not abused its discretion in these rulings.  Finally, the Court addressed appellant’s argument that challenged the sufficiency of evidence and the district court’s denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal, and concluded that the evidence in the record provided the government with sufficient evidence that the chemicals at issue were substantially similar in structure to a controlled substance, and that these chemicals have similar effects on the human body as a controlled substance.

Full Opinion

-Alysja S. Garansi