Smith v. United States

Decision Date01 June 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-8674,91-8674
Citation508 U.S. 223,113 S.Ct. 2050,124 L.Ed.2d 138
PartiesJohn Angus SMITH, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

After petitioner Smith offered to trade an automatic weapon to an undercover officer for cocaine, he was charged with numerous firearm and drug trafficking offenses. Title 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) requires the imposition of specified penalties if the defendant, “during and in relation to ... [a] drug trafficking crime[,] uses ... a firearm.” In affirming Smith's conviction and sentence, the Court of Appeals held that § 924(c)(1)'s plain language imposes no requirement that a firearm be “use[d] as a weapon, but applies to any use of a gun that facilitates in any manner the commission of a drug offense.

Held: A criminal who trades his firearm for drugs “uses” it “during and in relation to ... [a] drug trafficking crime” within the meaning of § 924(c)(1). Pp. 2053–2060.

(a) Section 924's language and structure establish that exchanging a firearm for drugs may constitute “use” within § 924(c)(1)'s meaning. Smith's handling of his gun falls squarely within the everyday meaning and dictionary definitions of “use.” Had Congress intended § 924(c)(1) to require proof that the defendant not only used his firearm but used it in a specific manner—as a weapon—it could have so indicated in the statute. However, Congress did not. The fact that the most familiar example of us [ing] ... a firearm” is “use” as a weapon does not mean that the phrase excludes all other ways in which a firearm might be used. The United States Sentencing Guidelines, even if the Court were to assume their relevance in the present context, do not support the dissent's narrow interpretation that “to use” a firearm can mean only to use it for its intended purposes, such as firing and brandishing, since Guidelines Manual § 2B3.1(b)(2) explicitly contemplates “othe[r] use[s] that are not limited to the intended purposes identified by the dissent. The dissent's approach, moreover, would exclude the use of a gun to pistol-whip a victim as the intended purpose of a gun is that it be fired or brandished, not that it be used as a bludgeon. In addition, Congress affirmatively demonstrated that it meant to include transactions like Smith's as “us[ing] a firearm” within the meaning of § 924(c)(1) by employing similar language in § 924(d)(1), which subjects to forfeiture any “firearm ... intended to be used” in various listed offenses. Many of the listed offenses involve “using” the firearm not as a weapon but as an item of barter or commerce. Thus, even if § 924(c)(1), as originally enacted, applied only to use of a firearm during crimes of violence, it is clear from the face of the statute that “use” is not presently limited to use as a weapon, but is broad enough to cover use for trade. Pp. 2053–2058.

(b) Smith's use of his firearm was “during and in relation to” a drug trafficking crime. Smith does not, and cannot, deny that the alleged use occurred “during” such a crime. And there can be little doubt that his use was “in relation to” the offense. That phrase has a dictionary meaning of “with reference to” or “as regards” and, at a minimum, clarifies that the firearm must have some purpose or effect with respect to the drug crime. Thus, its presence or involvement cannot be the result of accident or coincidence, and it at least must facilitate or have the purpose of facilitating the drug offense. Here, the firearm was an integral part of the drug transaction, which would not have been possible without it. There is no reason why Congress would not have wanted its language to cover this situation, since the introduction of guns into drug transactions dramatically heightens the danger to society, whether the guns are used as a medium of exchange or as protection for the transactions or dealers. Pp. 2058–2059.

(c) Smith's invocation of the rule of lenity is rejected. Imposing a narrower construction of § 924(c)(1) than the one herein adopted would do violence not only to the statute's plain language and structure, but also to its purpose of addressing the heightened risk of violence and death that accompanies the introduction of firearms to drug trafficking offenses. Pp. 2059–2060.

957 F.2d 835 (CA11 1992), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, KENNEDY, andTHOMAS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. ––––. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. ––––.

Gary Kollin, Fort Lauderdale, FL, for petitioner. Thomas G. Hungar, Washington, DC, for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

We decide today whether the exchange of a gun for narcotics constitutes “use” of a firearm “during and in relation to ... [a] drug trafficking crime” within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). We hold that it does.


Petitioner John Angus Smith and his companion went from Tennessee to Florida to buy cocaine; they hoped to resell it at a profit. While in Florida, they met petitioner's acquaintance, Deborah Hoag. Hoag agreed to, and in fact did, purchase cocaine for petitioner. She then accompanied petitioner and his friend to her motel room, where they were joined by a drug dealer. While Hoag listened, petitioner and the dealer discussed petitioner's MAC–10 firearm, which had been modified to operate as an automatic. The MAC–10 apparently is a favorite among criminals. It is small and compact, lightweight, and can be equipped with a silencer. Most important of all, it can be devastating: A fully automatic MAC–10 can fire more than 1,000 rounds per minute. The dealer expressed his interest in becoming the owner of a MAC–10, and petitioner promised that he would discuss selling the gun if his arrangement with another potential buyer fell through.

Unfortunately for petitioner, Hoag had contacts not only with narcotics traffickers but also with law enforcement officials. In fact, she was a confidential informant. Consistent with her post, she informed the Broward County Sheriff's Office of petitioner's activities. The Sheriff's Office responded quickly, sending an undercover officer to Hoag's motel room. Several others were assigned to keep the motel under surveillance. Upon arriving at Hoag's motel room, the undercover officer presented himself to petitioner as a pawnshop dealer. Petitioner, in turn, presented the officer with a proposition: He had an automatic MAC–10 and silencer with which he might be willing to part. Petitioner then pulled the MAC–10 out of a black canvas bag and showed it to the officer. The officer examined the gun and asked petitioner what he wanted for it. Rather than asking for money, however, petitioner asked for drugs. He was willing to trade his MAC–10, he said, for two ounces of cocaine. The officer told petitioner that he was just a pawnshop dealer and did not distribute narcotics. Nonetheless, he indicated that he wanted the MAC–10 and would try to get the cocaine. The officer then left, promising to return within an hour.

Rather than seeking out cocaine as he had promised, the officer returned to the Sheriff's Office to arrange for petitioner's arrest. But petitioner was not content to wait. The officers who were conducting surveillance saw him leave the motel room carrying a gun bag; he then climbed into his van and drove away. The officers reported petitioner's departureand began following him. When law enforcement authorities tried to stop petitioner, he led them on a high-speed chase. Petitioner eventually was apprehended.

Petitioner, it turns out, was well armed. A search of his van revealed the MAC–10 weapon, a silencer, ammunition, and a “fast-feed” mechanism. In addition, the police found a MAC–11 machine gun, a loaded .45 caliber pistol, and a .22 caliber pistol with a scope and homemade silencer. Petitioner also had a loaded 9 millimeter handgun in his waistband.

A grand jury sitting in the District Court for the Southern District of Florida returned an indictment charging petitioner with, among other offenses, two drug trafficking crimes—conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and attempt to possess cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846, and 18 U.S.C. § 2. App. 3–9. Most important here, the indictment alleged that petitioner knowingly used the MAC–10 and its silencer during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime. Id., at 4–5. Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1), a defendant who so uses a firearmmust be sentenced to five years' incarceration. And where, as here, the firearm is a “machinegun” or is fitted with a silencer, the sentence is 30 years. See § 924(c)(1) ([I]f the firearm is a machinegun, or is equipped with a firearm silencer,” the sentence is “thirty years”); § 921(a)(23), 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b) (term “machinegun” includes automatic weapons). The jury convicted petitioner on all counts.

On appeal, petitioner argued that § 924(c)(1)'s 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. According to petitioner, the provision does not extend to defendants who use a firearm solely as a medium of exchange or for barter. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed. 957 F.2d 835 (1992). The plain language of the statute, the court explained, imposes no requirement that the firearm be used as a weapon. Instead, any use of “the weapon to facilitate in any manner the commission of the offense” suffices. Id., at 837

(internal quotation marks omitted).

Shortly before the Eleventh Circuit decided this case, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit arrived at the same conclusion. United States v. Harris, 294 U.S.App.D.C. 300, 315–316, 959 F.2d 246, 261–262

( per curiam),cert. denied, 506 U.S. 932, 113 S.Ct. 362, 121...

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