Smith v. United States

PETITIONER: Smith
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Austin's Auto Body Shop and mobile home

DOCKET NO.: 91-8674
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 508 US 223 (1993)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1993
DECIDED: May 24, 1993

ADVOCATES:
Gary Kollin - By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the petitioner
Thomas G. Hungar - Argued the cause for the United States

Facts of the case

John Angus Smith offered to trade an automatic weapon, a MAC-10, to an undercover officer for cocaine. Subsequently, he was charged with numerous firearm and drug trafficking offenses. Federal law imposes mandatory sentence enhancement penalties, specifically 30 years for a "machinegun", if a defendant "during and in relation to . . . [a] drug trafficking crime[,] uses . . . a firearm." A jury convicted Smith on all counts, which triggered the sentence enhancement. On appeal, Smith argued that the federal penalty for using a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense covers only situations in which the firearm is used as a weapon, not as a medium of exchange. The Court of Appeals disagreed. It held that the plain language of the penalty does not require that a firearm be used as a weapon, but that it applies to any use of a gun that facilitates, in any fashion, the perpetration of a drug offense.

Question

Does trading a gun for drugs make a convicted defendant eligible for sentence enhancement under a federal law, which requires such treatment if the defendant "during and in relation to . . . [a] drug trafficking crime[,] uses . . . a firearm?"

Media for Smith v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1993 in Smith v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 91-8674, John Angus Smith v. the United States.

Mr. Kollin, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Gary Kollin:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

John Angus Smith was convicted of a violation of title 18, United States Code, 924(c), when he possessed a firearm and offered it as an item in trade for barter for a small quantity of drugs.

As a result of his conviction, he received 30 years minimum sentence, consecutive to the terms he received on his other counts.

The issue today is whether the offering of a firearm solely as an item of barter violates 18 United States Code 924(c) for the use of a firearm during and in relation to a Federal drug trafficking crime.

At the outset, it is important to realize that this statute provides two different methods by which it could be violated: first, by the use of a firearm during and in relation to the Federal drug trafficking crime; and the second way is by carrying the firearm during and in relation to the Federal drug trafficking crime.

John Angus Smith was only charged with the use prong of the statute.

We submit that--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I guess he could have been charged with carrying it.

Gary Kollin:

--That is correct, Justice.

However, the Government elected, for whatever reasons they chose, to only charge him with the use prong.

In fact, this was the third superseding indictment in regard to this matter, and in each one he was only charged with the use prong.

So, they had three times to change that election.

Byron R. White:

If you had been charged with carrying, I don't suppose... and you had been... your client had been convicted, I don't suppose you would be here.

Gary Kollin:

That is probably correct, Justice.

Byron R. White:

You wouldn't have much of a case about coverage, would you?

Gary Kollin:

That is probably true, but the Government did choose to and elected to charge him with use, and that is the reason why we're here today and what he is charged with.

Antonin Scalia:

You wouldn't argue that use or carry means carry for the purpose of using?

Gary Kollin:

Well--

Antonin Scalia:

Really?

I'm surprised.

Gary Kollin:

--Justice Scalia--

Antonin Scalia:

Well, that's all right.

Gary Kollin:

--I'm prepared to argue that, and--

Antonin Scalia:

Yes, I think you would.

Gary Kollin:

--Because what I want to say here is that if we accept the Government's suggestion of the definition of use, this all-encompassing definition, or the lower courts', then the word use would always swallow up and encompass the word carry.

There could never be a situation where someone could use a firearm under their definition or under the definition of the majority of the lower courts where one would not be also carrying.

I mean, if you would carry it, you always would use it.

And the principles... I cannot think of a situation under their definition where it could not occur.