Muscarello v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Muscarello (D), a convicted drug trafficker, argued that he should not receive a mandatory 5-year minimum sentence under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1) since the law provides for such a sentence only when the criminal carries or uses a firearm during the crime or in relation to it, which was not true in his case since the firearm was in the locked glove compartment of his car during the time.

Facts of the case

“18 USC section 924(c)(1) subjects a person who “”uses or carries a firearm”” “”during and in relation to”” a “”drug trafficking crime”” to a 5-year mandatory prison term. In 96-1654, police officers found a handgun locked in Frank J. Muscarello’s truck’s glove compartment. Muscarello was transporting marijuana for sale in his truck. Muscarello argued that his “”carrying”” of the gun in the glove compartment did not fall within the scope of the statutory word “”carries.”” In 96-8837, federal agents found drugs and guns in Donald Cleveland and Enrique Gray-Santana’s car at a drug-sale point. The Court of Appeals, in both cases, found that the defendants had violated section 924(c)(1).”


Does the phrase carries a firearm include knowingly possessing and carrying firearms in a vehicle, including its locked glove compartment or trunk, which the person concerned accompanies?


(Breyer, J.) The phrase carries a firearm includes knowingly possessing and carrying firearms in a vehicle, including its locked glove compartment or trunk, which the person concerned accompanies. Both parties agree that Congress intended the phrase to have its usual English meaning and not some special legal meaning. In English, one can carry firearms in a vehicle which one accompanies. The first meaning of the word is made clear by looking up its basic meaning in dictionaries as well as the etymology. Both clarify that the word includes transport in a vehicle. The greatest writers and the modern press writers have used this word with the sense of vehicular conveyance. The secondary meaning is that of providing support rather than moving or transporting. Thus the arguments of the defendant and of the dissent that only the secondary meaning was intended is not supported. Carry includes carrying in a vehicle. Moreover, the purpose of the state to prevent the combination of drugs and guns, as well as the history of the statute do not suport such a limitation of the word. The other arguments of the defendant also lack foundation. First, he states that there is a distinction in law between the words carry and transport since the latter word has been used in other laws connected with this issue to convey a different and more general meaning. However, the two words are not interchangeable as transport doesn’t convey personal agency or possession to some extent at least. Secondly, he argues that since uses as related to a firearm has been taken to mean the active use of a firearm, similar considerations should govern the interpretation of carry rather than the broad meaning. In answer, the court held that the meaning of carry should not be solely determined by the meaning of use since both have their own meaning. If the interpretation of the defendant is allowed, it would leave the act of carrying a firearm in a car out of the reach of the statute, and so go against the whole objective of the law. The defendant also argues that if this meaning is allowed, all passengers in all types of vehicles like buses, ships or trains who had a firearm in checked luggage would have to be jailed for it. This does not consider the rest of the statute which speaks of a gun carried or used during or in connection with a drug crime. The legislative history does not lend weight to the other argument of the defendant that carry should include the nuance of immediate availability. The final argument he presented is that the statute is ambiguous, making the rule of lenity applicable to him. But the extent of ambiguity is not so much as to justify this argument. While most laws contain some gray areas, only when the lack of clarity is present to a grievous degree would the rule of lenity apply. In this case, the decision is not a guess but a firm interpretation of the intention behind the law, concerning the defendant’s actions. The verdict is affirmed.


“The Court held that the phrase “”carries a firearm”” applies to a person who knowingly possesses and conveys firearms in a vehicle, including in the locked glove compartment or trunk of a car, which the person accompanies. The statute’s basic purpose was to combat the dangerous combination of drugs and guns and does not support limiting “”carry”” to an “”on the person”” application.”

  • Case Brief: 1998
  • Petitioner: Muscarello
  • Respondent: United States
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 524 US 125 (1998)
Argued: Mar 23, 1998
Decided: Jun 8, 1998