AuthorLee, Veronica

Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act ("CSA") as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act to regulate the use and distribution of illegal drugs. (1) Section 856(a) of the CSA specifically prohibits the act of maintaining a drug-involved premises. (2) In United States v. Safehouse, (3) the Third Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether opening a consumption room to prevent overdose-related deaths violated section 856(a) of the CSA. (4) The Third Circuit ultimately held that Safehouse's proposed consumption room would violate section 856(a) of the CSA because its users have a "significant purpose" of using illegal drugs on the premises. (5)

In 2018, Safehouse, a nonprofit corporation, filed a proposal to open a drug treatment facility that would feature America's first safe-injection site. (6) With support from local government officials, the nonprofit sought to save lives by preventing the spread of disease, counteracting drug overdoses, and providing drug treatment options. (7) To achieve these goals, Safehouse planned to open a consumption room, which would allow individuals to use pre-obtained drugs in its facility under medical supervision. (8)

The United States Department of Justice brought suit against Safehouse, seeking a declaratory judgment that the proposed safe-injection site violated section 856(a) of the CSA, which prohibits individuals from owning or maintaining premises for the purpose of drug use. (9) Safehouse counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment, arguing that the safe-injection site would not violate the CSA because Safehouse did not have the purpose that its vistors use drugs. (10) The district court ruled that the statutory language of section 856(a) of the CSA did not apply to Safehouse because its purpose in opening the consumption room was to "offer medical care, encourage treatment, and save lives, not to facilitate drug use." (11) The United States subsequently appealed. (12)

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which regulates the manufacture, possession, and use of certain controlled substances. (13) After an increase in the use of abandoned residences for illicit drug activity, section 856(a) of the CSA was enacted to prohibit the use, management, or control of premises for the manufacture, distribution, or use of a controlled substance. (14) This section was later amended in 2003 to include promoters of drug-fueled "rave parties" and to extend criminal liability to temporary premises. (15)

Section 856(a)(1) of the CSA states that it is "unlawful to knowingly open, lease, rent, use or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance." (16) Section 856(a)(2) provides that it is unlawful to "manage or control any place, whether permanently or temporarily ... for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance. (17) The principal distinction between paragraph (a)(1) and (a)(2) is that while (a)(1) criminalizes an individual's personal illegal drug activity, paragraph (a)(2) imposes liability when an individual deliberately makes his premises available to a third party who has the purpose of illegal drug activity. (18) To be liable under paragraph (a)(1), the defendant must have the requisite purpose of illict drug use, but under paragraph (a)(2), the defendant need only knowingly make his property available for a third party whose purpose is illegal drug use. (19) After the 2003 amendment, then-Senator Joseph Biden provided insight into the legislative intent of paragraph two, stating that "rogue promoters [charged under the statute must] not only know that there is drug activity at their event but also hold the event for the purpose of illegal drug use or distribution." (20)

The Supreme Court has established that, when analyzing criminal statues, statutory language should be strictly constructed so that its words are given a narrow meaning. (21) But while the rules of statutory construction state that "[i]dentical words used in different parts of the same statute are generally presumed to have the same meaning," courts must be careful not to construe the language so narrowly that sections are rendered redundant or nonfunctional. (22) Where the plain language of the statute is ambiguous, courts may look to legislative intent to further evaluate how the statute should be applied. (23) By considering both the plain meaning and lawmaker's intent, courts seek to avoid creating "unintended or absurd" results when applying a statute. (24)

In United States v. Safehouse, Safehouse argued that its consumption room would not violate the CSA because section 856(a) does not broadly apply to any property where drug use occurs, but only to properties used, maintained, or opened "for the purpose" of illegal drug activity. (25) The Department of Justice, on the other hand, contended that section 856(a)(2) prohibits Safehouse's proposed safe-injection site because the people who use it will do so for the purpose of illegal drug use. (26) The Third Circuit ultimately sided with the government, ruling that section 856(a)(2) focuses on a third party's purpose when determining liability, and that Safehouse's knowing and intentional opening of the safe-injection site would thus violate the CSA. (27)

To differentiate between the similar language of paragraphs (1) and (2), the Third Circuit highlighted the meaning of the word "purpose" in each subsection. (28) To avoid making the subsections redundant, the court interpreted section 856(a)(1) as prohibiting a defendant from operating a place for his own illegal drug activity, and interpreted section 856(a)(2) as barring a defendant from knowingly making his property available to another who has the purpose of engaging in illegal drug activity. (29) In arriving at this conclusion, the Court stressed that Safehouse's argument would violate the rules of statutory construction by blurring the distinction between the two subsections of section 856(a), rendering its language superfluous and inoperative. (30) By separately defining the word "purpose" in each subsection, the court determined that any ambiguity was resolved and that legislative intent need not be evaluated. (31)

The Third Circuit's decision to criminalize Safehouse's consumption room under section 856(a) is inconsistent with the rules of statutory interpretation and Congress' legislative intent. (32) In its interpretation of section 856(a)(2), the Third Circuit cited the principle that a statute should be construed to give all provisions full effect and avoid rendering any parts of the statute inoperative or superfluous. (33) Despite this, the court ruled that the term "purpose" under section 856(a)(1) refers to a defendant, and, under section 856(a)(2), to an unnamed third party, effectively giving the word different meanings. (34) Though the Supreme Court has affirmed that courts must "look to the words of the statute" and consider legislative intent in cases of ambiguity, the court here opted for a broad reading of the statute and incorrectly determined legislative intent to be irrelevant. (35)

The Third Circuit's...

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