United States v. Watson
128 S.Ct. 579 (2007)

  • Watson wanted a gun. He talked to a guy (who was an informant), who offered to trade him a gun for some drugs. Watson acquired the drugs, made the deal and was arrested.
  • Watson pled guilty, but appealed his sentence.
    • Watson had received an extra 60 month sentence for "use of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime" (18 U.S.C. 924 (c)(1)(A)).
  • The Appellate Court affirmed the sentence. Watson appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court vacated the sentence.
    • The US Supreme Court looked to the ordinary usage of the word "use" and found that it did not include "receive".
      • "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."
    • The Court noted a few other cases, but said they were unhelpful.
      • The Court looked to Smith v. United States (508 U.S. 223 (1993)), where they found that trading a gun to get some drugs (the reverse of this case) counts as "using" a gun under 924(c)(1)(A), even though there was no "violent employment".
      • The Court looked to Bailey v. United States (516 U.S. 137 (1995)), and found that just possessing a gun while dealing drugs did not count as "using" a gun under 924(c)(1)(A). It requires "active employment."
    • The prosecutor unsuccessfully argued that "use" could be interpreted as "use later, after buying it" (Watson probably intended to 'use' the gun at some point in the future), but the Court found that are stretching the definition too far.
    • The prosecutor argued that there should be symmetry between this case and Smith, but the Court found that 924(c)(1)(A) only applies to using the gun "in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime." Whatever Watson intended to do with the gun, the drug trafficking crime was over as soon as he sold the drugs.
      • The prosecution suggested that, "it would be strange to penalize one side of a gun-for-drugs exchange but not the other."