The US Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of a Louisiana man who was charged with "using" a gun during a drug deal after an agent handed the man the gun in a swap for drugs during an undercover sting operation.
In a unanimous decision announced Monday, the high court said the federal gun law is designed to prevent criminals from "using" their own guns during crimes. When federal agents introduce unloaded firearms into an undercover investigation, the suspect should not be held criminally liable for the presence of the gun at the scene of a crime, the court ruled.
The Supreme Court's primary authority for its decision was the English language.
Writing for the court, Justice David Souter says the government's defense of its reading of the law "would trump ordinary English."
"The government may say that a person 'uses' a firearm simply by receiving it in a barter transaction, but no one else would," Justice Souter writes. "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."
Law-enforcement officials have increasingly used the federal gun law as a means to boost potential prison sentences for drug dealers. The statute can add a mandatory five more years or more onto a drug-dealing conviction.
The ruling, in Watson v. US, comes in the case of Michael Watson of Ascension, La. In November 2004, Mr. Watson told an acquaintance he wanted to buy a handgun for protection.
The man, who is legally blind, said he needed the gun to safeguard his home from break-ins. As a convicted felon, Watson was barred from legally purchasing or possessing a firearm.
Unknown to Watson, his acquaintance was working as an informant for law-enforcement officials. The officials told the acquaintance to suggest a drugs-for-gun barter deal between Watson and an undercover federal agent who would be posing as an illegal gun dealer. Watson agreed to swap 24 doses of the prescription drug OxyContin for a .50 caliber Desert Eagle pistol.
Shortly after Watson exchanged the pills for the gun, he was placed under arrest. Federal authorities charged him with drug dealing and possession of a gun by a felon. But prosecutors also charged Watson with "using" a gun during a drug-trafficking offense – a crime that carries a five-year minimum mandatory sentence.
Prosecutors reasoned that since the unloaded pistol was "used" as payment for the drugs, the gun was used in a way that triggered additional criminal liability. Watson pleaded guilty to drug dealing and unlawful possession of the gun, but he appealed the charge that he "used" the gun in the drug deal.
The unloaded gun provided by the undercover agent was only under Watson's control for a few moments before his arrest.
At issue in the case was how to define the word "use" in a statute that outlaws the "use" of a gun during a drug crime.
The justices rejected the government's contention that Watson's brief possession of the gun qualified as a prohibited "use" in a drug transaction.
The government had argued that in 1993, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a south Florida drug dealer who used his machine gun as payment for a load of drugs.
In that case, the issue before the court was whether the statute outlawed the use of a gun as payment in a barter deal or instead prohibited the use of a gun as a weapon in a crime.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a concurring opinion to the Watson decision. "It is better to receive than to give, the court holds today, at least when the subject is guns," she writes.
She adds that despite agreeing with the outcome of the case, in her view the earlier 1993 case had been wrongly decided. "I would read the word 'use' in [the gun law] to mean use as a weapon, not use in a bartering transaction," Justice Ginsburg writes.
She said she was prepared to overrule the 1993 decision "and thereby render our precedent both coherent and consistent with normal usage."