United States v. Kahn.
No. 19-8054. 2/3/2023. D.Wyo. Judge Briscoe. Controlled Substances Act—“Knowingly or Intentionally” Mens Rea Requirement—Burden of Proof—Harmless Error.
January 30, 2023
Kahn was convicted of violating the Controlled Substances Act, 21 USC § 841(a), for dispensing controlled substances not “as authorized.” He appealed to the Tenth Circuit, contending, as relevant here, that the district court’s jury instructions improperly advised the jury regarding § 841(a)’s mens rea requirement. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the convictions, relying on prior precedent. Kahn appealed to the US Supreme Court, which held that § 841(a)’s “knowingly or intentionally” mens rea requirement applies to the “except as authorized” clause of the statute. Ruan v. United States, 142 S.Ct. 2370 (2022). The Court vacated the Tenth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings, instructing the Tenth Circuit to address whether the jury instructions complied with Ruan’s mens rea standard and whether any instructional error was harmless.
On remand, the Tenth Circuit first determined that Ruan expressly disallows convictions under § 841(a)(1) for behavior that is only objectively unauthorized; the government always has the burden of proving that a defendant “knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner.” Here, the jury was repeatedly instructed that it could convict Kahn if it concluded that he acted outside the usual course of professional medical practice or without a legitimate medical purpose, so the instructions effectively lowered the government’s burden to showing only that Kahn’s behavior was objectively unauthorized. Therefore, the jury instructions did not require the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Kahn knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner, and they were inconsistent with Ruan’s mens rea standard. Second, Kahn’s intent was contested during trial, and the jury was not required to find that he intended to or knowingly did act not “as authorized.” The erroneous instructions thus prejudiced Kahn as to all counts. Accordingly, the error was not harmless.
The convictions were vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.