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Monday, December 10, 2007

Watson: Not "Use" to Barter Drugs for Gun

In Watson v. U.S., No. 06-571 (Dec. 10, 2007), the Supreme Court held that a person who trades drugs for a gun does not "use" a firearm and is therefore not guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which criminalizes use of a firearm during and in connection with a drug trafficking offense.
The Court noted that in ordinary English, a person who trades an object to acquire another uses the object that he parts with, but not the one he acquires: when a person pays a cashier at a cafeteria one dollar for a cup of coffee, the person "uses" the dollar bill, not the cup of coffee. The Court declined to import meaning from a neighboring statute which criminalizes the mere receipt of a firearm, pointing out that the two statutes speak to different issues.
The Court also rejected the argument that since it had construed § 924(c) to criminalize bartering guns for drugs, it made sense to symmetrically also punish bartering drugs for guns. The Court, however, said that it must respect the "language" of the statute, and left it to Congress to decide whether the language should be change to effectuate more symmetrical results.