Watson v. United States

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Watson v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 9, 2007
Decided December 10, 2007
Full case nameMichael A. Watson, Petitioner v. United States
Docket no. 06-571
Citations552 U.S. 74 ( more )
128 S. Ct. 579; 169 L. Ed. 2d 472
Prior historyUnited States v. Watson, 191 F. App'x 326 (5th Cir. 2006); cert. granted, 549 U.S. 1251(2007).
Smith v. United States (1993) holds that one "uses" a gun by giving it in exchange for drugs. A transaction in the opposite direction does not violate the same statute (one does not "use" a gun by receiving it in exchange for drugs).
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens  · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy  · David Souter
Clarence Thomas  · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer  · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
MajoritySouter, joined by Roberts, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito
Laws applied
18 U.S.C.   § 924

Watson v. United States, 552 U.S. 74 (2007), is a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court had earlier held in Smith v. United States (1993) that the exchange of a gun for drugs constituted "use" of a firearm for purposes of a federal statute imposing penalties for "use" of a firearm "during and in relation to" a drug trafficking crime; in Watson, the court decided that a transaction in the opposite direction does not violate the same statute (i.e., Smith holds that one "uses" a gun by giving it in exchange for drugs, and Watson holds that one does not "use" a gun by receiving it in exchange for drugs).

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions.

Smith v. United States, 508 U.S. 223 (1993), is a United States Supreme Court case that held that the exchange of a gun for drugs constituted "use" of the firearm for purposes of a federal statute imposing penalties for "use" of a firearm "during and in relation to" a drug trafficking crime.


Question presented

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)?


Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court saying that Smith held that firearms may be “used” in barter transaction, even with no violent employment and that it addressed the trader only, who swaps his gun for drugs, not the trading partner who ends up with the gun. Bailey v. United States (1995), too, does not help because it ruled 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.” The majority of the Court held that a person does not “use” a firearm under 924(c)(1)(A) when he receives it in trade for drugs, the Judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

David Souter American judge

David Hackett Souter is a retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He served from October 1990 until his retirement in June 2009. Appointed by President George H. W. Bush to fill the seat vacated by William J. Brennan Jr., Souter sat on both the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts.

Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137 (1995), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court interpreted a frequently used section of the federal criminal code. At the time of the decision, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) imposed a mandatory, consecutive five-year prison term on anyone who "during and in relation to any... drug trafficking crime... uses a firearm." The lower court had sustained the defendants' convictions, defining "use" in such a way as to mean little more than mere possession. The Supreme Court ruled instead that "use" means "active employment" of a firearm, and sent the cases back to the lower court for further proceedings. As a result of the Court's decision in Bailey, Congress amended the statute to expressly include possession of a firearm as requiring the additional five-year prison term.

Decision and Rationale

The Fifth Circuit affirmed that receiving a firearm constituted “use” for the purposes. The decision at which the Supreme Court arrived at via unanimous decision was that the momentary possession of the received unloaded semi-automatic pistol was not sufficient to constitute the “use” of the weapon. The rationale behind the Watson situation is that even though there was a firearm present in the transaction, Watson was not carrying it during the transaction. The weapon was unloaded and in his possession for a minimal amount of time. The decision withheld therefore was that Watson's bartering of drugs for the pistol did not constitute the “use” of the weapon due to the fact that the weapon was not loaded, he was not carrying it during the transaction and only had ownership of the firearm for few minutes before being arrested by officials.


Justice Ginsburg delivered the concurrence to the court. She states that she agrees with the opinion of the court but has a different reasoning. Her reasoning is that she defines the word “use” to mean using as a weapon and not in bartering transactions. She also goes on to state that she would overrule Smith, 508 U.S., at 241, and make the precedent both “coherent and consistent with normal usage.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an American lawyer and jurist who is an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton and took the oath of office on August 10, 1993. She is the second female justice of four to be confirmed to the court. Following O'Connor's retirement, and until Sotomayor joined the court, Ginsburg was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents, which were noted by legal observers and in popular culture. She is generally viewed as belonging to the liberal wing of the court. Ginsburg has authored notable majority opinions, including United States v. Virginia, Olmstead v. L.C., and Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc.

See also

Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928), was a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, in which the Court reviewed whether the use of wiretapped private telephone conversations, obtained by federal agents without judicial approval and subsequently used as evidence, constituted a violation of the defendant’s rights provided by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that neither the Fourth Amendment nor the Fifth Amendment rights of the defendant were violated. This decision was later overturned by Katz v. United States in 1967.

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