552 U.S. 74 (2007), 06-571, Watson v. United States

Docket Nº:06-571.
Citation:552 U.S. 74, 128 S.Ct. 579
Opinion Judge:SOUTER, Justice
Party Name:Michael A. WATSON, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
Attorney:Karl J. Koch argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Mark T. Standi, David T. Goldberg, and Daniel R. Ortiz. Deanne E. Maynard argued the cause for the United States. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Assistant Attorney General Fisher, Deputy Solicitor Gen...
Judge Panel:SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, Post, p. 84. GINSBURG, Justice concurring in the judgment.
Case Date:December 10, 2007
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 74

552 U.S. 74 (2007)

128 S.Ct. 579

Michael A. WATSON, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 06-571.

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 10, 2007

Argued October 9, 2007.

Syllabus

After trading a controlled substance for a pistol, petitioner Watson was indicted for, inter alia, violating 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A), which sets a mandatory minimum sentence, depending on the facts, for a defendant who, "during and in relation to any ... drug trafficking crime[,] ... uses ... a firearm." The statute does not define "uses," but this Court has spoken [128 S.Ct. 580] to it twice. In holding that "a criminal who trades his firearm for drugs 'uses' it . . . within the meaning of § 924(c)(1)," Smith v. United States, 508 U.S. 223, 241, 113 S.Ct. 2050, 124 L.Ed.2d 138, the Court rested primarily on the "ordinary or natural meaning" of the verb in context, id., at 228, 113 S.Ct. 2050, understanding its common range as going beyond employment as a weapon to trading a weapon for drugs, id., at 230, 113 S.Ct. 2050. Later, in holding that merely possessing a firearm kept near the scene of drug trafficking is not "use" under § 924(c)(1), the Court, in Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137, 116 S.Ct. 501, 133 L.Ed.2d 472, again looked to "ordinary or natural" meaning, id., at 145, 116 S.Ct. 501, deciding that " § 924(c)(1) requires evidence sufficient to show an active employment of the firearm by the defendant, a use that makes the firearm an operative factor in relation to the predicate offense," id., at 143, 116 S.Ct. 501. Watson pleaded guilty but reserved the right to challenge the factual basis for a § 924(c)(1)(A) conviction and sentence. The Fifth Circuit affirmed on its precedent foreclosing any argument that Watson had not "used" a firearm.

Held:

A person does not "use" a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) when he receives it in trade for drugs. Pp. 78-83.

(a) The Government's position lacks authority in either precedent or regular English. Neither Smith, which addressed only the trader who swaps his gun for drugs, not the trading partner who ends up with the gun, nor Bailey, which ruled that a gun must be made use of actively to satisfy § 924(c)(1)(A), decides this case. With no statutory definition, the meaning of "uses" has to turn on "everyday meaning" revealed in phraseology that strikes the ear as "both reasonable and normal." Smith, supra, 228, 230, 113 S.Ct. 2050. When Watson handed over the drugs for the pistol, the officer "used" the pistol to get the drugs, but regular speech would not say that Watson himself used the pistol in the trade. Pp. 78-79.

(b) The Government's first effort to trump ordinary English is rejected. Noting that § 924(d)(1) authorizes seizure and forfeiture of

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firearms "intended to be used in" certain crimes, the Government infers that since some of those offenses involve receipt of a firearm, "use" necessarily includes receipt of a gun even in a barter transaction. The Government's reliance on Smith for the proposition that the term must be given the same meaning in both subsections overreads Smith. The common verb "use" is not at odds in the two subsections but speaks to different issues in different voices and at different levels of specificity. Section 924(d)(1) indicates that a gun can be "used" in a receipt crime, but does not say whether both parties to a transfer use the gun, or only one, or which one; however, § 924(c)(1)(A) requires just such a specific identification. Pp. 80-82.

(c) Nor is the Government's second effort to trump ordinary English persuasive. It claims that failing to treat receipt in trade as "use" would create unacceptable asymmetry with Smith; i.e., it would be strange to penalize one side of a gun-for-drugs exchange but not the other. The problem is not with Smith, however, but with the limited malleability of the language it construed, and policy-driven symmetry cannot turn "receipt-in-trade" into "use." Whatever the tension between the prior result and the outcome here, law depends on respect for language and would be served better by statutory amendment than by racking statutory language to cover a policy it fails to reach. Pp. 82-83.

[128 S.Ct. 581] 191 Fed.Appx. 326, reversed and remanded.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, Post, p. 84.

COUNSEL

Karl J. Koch argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Mark T. Standi, David T. Goldberg, and Daniel R. Ortiz.

Deanne E. Maynard argued the cause for the United States. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Assistant Attorney General Fisher, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and William C. Brown.[*]

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OPINION

SOUTER, Justice.

The question is whether a person who trades his drugs for a gun "uses" a firearm "during and in relation to ... [a] drug trafficking crime" within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A).1 We hold that he does not.

I

A

Section 924(c)(1)(A) sets a mandatory minimum sentence, depending on the facts, for a defendant who, "during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime[,] . . . uses or carries a firearm."2 The statute leaves the term "uses" undefined, though we have spoken to it twice before.

Smith v. United States, 508 U.S. 223, 113 S.Ct. 2050, 124 L.Ed.2d 138 (1993) raised the converse of today's question, and held that "a criminal who trades his firearm for drugs 'uses' it during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense within the meaning of § 924(c)(1)." Id., at 241, 113 S.Ct. 2050. We rested primarily on the "ordinary or natural meaning" of the verb in context, id., at 228, 113 S.Ct. 2050, and understood its common range as going beyond employment as a weapon: "it is both reasonable and normal to say that petitioner 'used' his MAC-10 in his drug trafficking offense by trading it for cocaine," id., at 230, 113 S.Ct. 2050.

Two years later, the issue in Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137, 116 S.Ct. 501, 133 L.Ed.2d 472 (1995) was whether possessing a firearm kept near the scene of drug trafficking is "use" under § 924(c)(1). We looked again to "ordinary or natural" meaning, id., at 145, 116 S.Ct. 501, and decided that mere possession does not amount to "use": " § 924(c)(1) requires evidence sufficient to show an active employment of the firearm by the defendant, [128 S.Ct. 582] a use that makes

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the firearm an operative factor in relation to the predicate offense," id., at 143, 116 S.Ct. 501.3

B

This third case on the reach of § 924(c)(1)(A) began to take shape when petitioner, Michael A. Watson, told a Government informant that he wanted to acquire a gun. On the matter of price, the informant quoted no dollar figure but suggested that Watson could pay in narcotics. Next, Watson met with the informant and an undercover law enforcement agent posing as a firearms dealer, to whom he gave 24 doses of oxycodone hydrocholoride (commonly, OxyContin) 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." App. to Pet. for Cert. 11a.

A federal grand jury indicted him for distributing a Schedule II controlled substance and for "using" the pistol during and in relation to that crime, in violation of § 924(c)(1)(A).4 Watson pleaded guilty across the board, reserving the right to challenge the factual basis for a § 924(c)(1)(A) conviction and the added consecutive sentence of 60 months for using the gun. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 191 Fed.Appx. 326 (C.A.5 2006) (per curiam), on Circuit precedent foreclosing any argument that Watson had not "used" a firearm, see id., at 327 (citing United States v. Ulloa, 94 F.3d 949 (C.A.5 1996) and United States v. Zuniga, 18 F.3d 1254 (C.A.5 1994)).

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We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Circuits on whether a person "uses" a firearm within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) when he trades narcotics to obtain a gun.5 549 U.S. 1251, 127 S.Ct. 1371, 167 L.Ed.2d 158 (2007). We now reverse.

II

A

The Government's position that Watson "used" the pistol under § 924(c)(1)(A) by receiving it for narcotics lacks authority in [128 S.Ct. 583] either precedent or regular English. To begin with, neither Smith nor Bailey implicitly decides this case. While Smith held that firearms may be "used" in a barter transaction, even with no violent employment, see 508 U.S., at 241, 113 S.Ct. 2050, the case addressed only the trader who swaps his gun for drugs, not the trading partner who ends up with the gun. Bailey, too, is unhelpful, with its rule that a gun must be made use of actively to satisfy § 924(c)(1)(A), as "an operative factor in relation to the predicate offense." 516 U.S., at 143, 116 S.Ct. 501. The question here is whether it makes sense to say that Watson employed the gun at all; Bailey does not answer it.

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With no statutory definition or definitive clue, the meaning of the verb "uses" has to turn on the language as we normally speak it, see, e.g., Lopez v. Gonzales, 549 U.S. 47, 53, 127 S.Ct. 625, 629-30, 166 L.Ed.2d 462 (2006); Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U.S. 179, 187, 115 S.Ct. 788, 130 L.Ed.2d 682 (1995); FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 476, 114 S.Ct. 996, 127 L.Ed.2d 308 (1994); there is no other source of a reasonable inference about what Congress understood when writing or what its words will bring to the mind of a careful reader. So, in Smith we looked for "everyday meaning," 508 U.S., at 228, 113 S.Ct. 2050, revealed in phraseology that strikes the ear as "both reasonable and normal," id., at 230, 113 S.Ct. 2050. See also Bailey, supra, ...

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