RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay
DOCKET NO.: 06-571
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
CITATION: 552 US 74 (2007)
GRANTED: Feb 26, 2007
ARGUED: Oct 09, 2007
DECIDED: Dec 10, 2007
Deanne E. Maynard - on behalf of the Respondent
Karl J. Koch - on behalf of the Petitioner
Facts of the case
Michael Watson was arrested for trading illegal drugs for an unloaded semi-automatic pistol. He was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 262 months in prison. Since Watson's crime involved a gun, his sentence included an additional 60 months. The extra jail time was imposed under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A), which punishes any drug trafficker who "uses or carries" a firearm during a drug deal. In Smith v. United States, the Supreme Court had ruled that a defendant who trades a gun for drugs "uses" it for purposes of the statute. However, the Court clarified in Bailey v. United States that "use" means "active employment" of a firearm; mere possession of the firearm does not necessarily constitute use.
On appeal, Watson argued that the firearm was not used in his case. He stressed that the gun was never loaded and was in his possession for only moments before he was arrested. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Watson's arguments and affirmed the lower court. Following Circuit precedents, it ruled that Watson had used the gun under the statute's meaning of "use."
Does the receipt of an unloaded firearm as payment for drugs constitute "use" of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense for purposes of federal law?
Media for Watson v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 09, 2007 in Watson v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 10, 2007 in Watson v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Souter has the opinion in case 06-571, Watson versus United States, which he asked me to announce.
This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Petitioner, Michael A. Watson traded narcotics for a pistol and was indicted for using a pistol during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1)(A).
He pleaded guilty, but reserved the right to appeal on the ground that receiving a firearm in exchange for narcotics is not use of a firearm within the meaning of Section 924 (c)(1)(A).
The Court of Appeals rejected this argument.
In an opinion filed with the clerk of the Court, we hold that Watson's conduct does not constitute use of a firearm, we reverse.
We have construed the same provision twice before.
Both times, we relied primarily on the ordinary or natural meaning of the verb "in context".
This appeal to ordinary English leaves the Government without much of a case for -- for in regular speech, we would not say that Watson used a firearm by merely receiving it in a barter transaction.
The Government's two main arguments for trumping ordinary English are unavailing.
First, the Government argues that under a neighboring provision, Section 924(d)(1), the verb used is employed in a manner that includes receipt in barter.
It asks us to import this meaning into Section (c)(1)(A), but this argument over reads our precedence and forgets that in the two different subsections, the common verb speaks to different issues in different voices and at different levels of specificity.
Second, the Government warns that a decision in favor of Watson would create unacceptable asymmetry with Smith versus United States, a prior case in which we held that trading of firearm for narcotics does constitute use of the firearm.
Whatever the tension between the -- that result in the outcome here, law depends on respect for language and would be served better by statutory amendment if Congress sees asymmetry, then by racking statutory language to cover a policy it fails to fit.
Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.