Supreme Court Unanimously Rules That Trading Drugs For A Gun Does Not Constitute “Use Of A Firearm” During A Drug-Trafficking Crime

Trading drugs for a gun does not constitute “use of a firearm” during a drug-trafficking crime, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In this case, the defendant, Michael Watson, told a Government informant that he wanted to acquire a gun. On the matter of price, the informant quoted no dollar figure, instead suggesting that Watson could pay in narcotics. Watson then met with the informant and an undercover law enforcement agent posing as a firearms dealer, to whom he gave 24 doses of OxyContin in exchange for a .50 caliber semiautomatic pistol. When law enforcement officers arrested Watson, they found the pistol in his car, and a later search of his house turned up a cache of prescription medicines, guns, and ammunition. Watson said he got the pistol “to protect his other firearms and drugs.”

Watson was indicted by a federal grand jury for distributing a Schedule II controlled substance and for “using” the pistol during and in relation to that crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). He pleaded guilty across the board, but reserved the right to challenge the factual basis for the § 924(c)(1)(A) conviction and the added consecutive sentence of 60 months for using the gun. Watson appealed to the Fifth Circuit, but the appeals court affirmed his conviction. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 9 to 0 decision, the high court held that a person who trades his drugs for a gun does not “use” a firearm during, and in relation to, a drug trafficking crime. With no statutory definition of “use” given, the justices applied “ordinary meaning and the conventions of English” to the term. Accordingly, the opinion stated, “The Government may say that a person ‘uses’ a firearm simply by receiving it in a barter transaction, but no one else would. A boy who trades an apple to get a granola bar is sensibly said to use the apple, but one would never guess which way this commerce actually flowed from hearing that the boy used the granola. So, when Watson handed over the drugs for the pistol, the informant or the agent ‘used’ the pistol to get the drugs, but regular speech would not say that Watson himself used the pistol in the trade.”

Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision. The high court’s ruling resolves a split among the circuits.

The case is Watson v. United States, Supreme Court of the United States, No. 06-571, December 10, 2007.