'Ruan v. United States' Reinforces Importance Of Mens Rea In Federal Criminal Law

Published date07 November 2022
Subject MatterLitigation, Mediation & Arbitration, Criminal Law, Trials & Appeals & Compensation, White Collar Crime, Anti-Corruption & Fraud
Law FirmMorvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello
AuthorMr Elkan Abramowitz and Jonathan Sack

In 1975, in a case involving food safety, the Supreme Court said that defining the outer bounds of criminal liability could be entrusted to "the good sense of prosecutors, the wise guidance of trial judges, and the ultimate judgment of juries." United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658, 669 (1975) (quoting United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 285 (1943)). Such willingness to trust a prosecutor's "good sense" is hardly the case now. In McDonnell v. United States, 579 U.S. 550, 576 (2016), to take one example, the Supreme Court declined to construe a key phrase affecting the definition of bribery expansively "on the assumption that the Government will 'use [a criminal statute] responsibly'" (citing United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 480 (2010)).

This concern with how broadly worded statutes may be used, or misused, by prosecutors was central to the Supreme Court's decision last term in Ruan v. United States, 142 S. Ct. 2370, 2380 (2022). Ruan arose from a federal criminal prosecution of licensed physicians for overprescribing opioids and other addictive drugs, in violation of '841 of the Controlled Substances Act. That law prohibits distribution of controlled substances "[e]xcept as authorized." 21 U.S.C. '841.

The Supreme Court considered whether "authorization" in that context should be based on a defendant's subjective knowledge and beliefs or an objective standard of reasonable medical care. The court held that authorization is a subjective matter and clarified that the government bore the burden of disproving a claim of authorization when properly raised by a defendant. Declining to rely on "the good sense of prosecutors," the court chose to construe the "[e]xcept as authorized" clause in a manner that imposed a heavier burden on the government before treating conduct as criminal in nature.

In this article, we first analyze the majority and concurring opinions in Ruan. Next, we draw a parallel with the law relating to a reliance on counsel defense. We conclude by suggesting how Ruan might be applied in other contexts.

'Ruan' Prosecutions

Xiulu Ruan and Shakeel Kahn, board-certified physicians, operated pain management clinics in three states. They wrote prescriptions for various controlled substances, including oxycodone, for patients in the clinic. In separate cases filed in Alabama and Wyoming, the defendants were charged with writing prescriptions according to patients' ability and willingness to pay, not on the basis of genuine medical need, in violation of 21 U.S.C. '841, which makes it a federal crime, "[e] xcept as authorized[,] ... for any person knowingly or intentionally ... to...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT