This Note focuses on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s
decision in United States v. Safehouse, which effectively declared any such facility
illegal under 21 U.S.C. § 856(a)(2) of the Controlled Substances Act. In doing so, the
Safehouse majority chose an exceptionally broad interpretation of an ambiguous statute
that is not supported by standard principles of statutory construction, longstanding
theories of criminal punishment, or the original intent of the legislators who enacted it.
The decision unnecessarily expands federal criminal liability in a way that sharply
curtails the ability of local governments and stakeholders on the ground closest to the
issue to choose how to respond to a very real and devastating health crisis.
Section II details the background facts and procedural history leading up to the
Third Circuit’s ruling. Section III examines prior law, including how other courts of
appeals have interpreted the provision as well as the decision of the United States District
Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which the Third Circuit reversed. Section
IV analyzes the Third Circuit’s Safehouse opinion, including that of the dissenting judge.
Finally, Section V explores the myriad of issues presented by the Third Circuit’s reading
of § 856(a)(2) through various lenses of accepted statutory interpretation principles,
theories of punishment, and policy considerations.