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Muscarello v. United States

    Brief Fact Summary. Muscarello (D), a convicted drug trafficker, argued that he should not receive a mandatory 5-year minimum sentence under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1) since the law provides for such a sentence only when the criminal carries or uses a firearm during the crime or in relation to it, which was not true in his case since the firearm was in the locked glove compartment of his car during the time.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The phrase “carries a firearm” includes knowingly possessing and carrying firearms in a vehicle, including its locked glove compartment or trunk, which the person concerned accompanies.

    Facts. Muscarello (D) was a convicted drug trafficker. He argued against a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1), on the ground that such a sentence was appropriate when a person uses or carries a firearm during or in connection with a drug trafficking crime. In his case the firearm was in his locked glove compartment. He argued that the intent of Congress in framing the term “carry” was to mean having a firearm on the body rather than in the transport. The case was granted review by the Supreme Court.

    Issue. Does the phrase “carries a firearm” include knowingly possessing and carrying firearms in a vehicle, including its locked glove compartment or trunk, which the person concerned accompanies?

    Held. (Breyer, J.) The phrase “carries a firearm” includes knowingly possessing and carrying firearms in a vehicle, including its locked glove compartment or trunk, which the person concerned accompanies. Both parties agree that Congress intended the phrase to have its usual English meaning and not some special legal meaning. In English, one can carry firearms in a vehicle which one accompanies. The first meaning of the word is made clear by looking up its basic meaning in dictionaries as well as the etymology. Both clarify that the word includes transport in a vehicle. The greatest writers and the modern press writers have used this word with the sense of vehicular conveyance. The secondary meaning is that of providing support rather than moving or transporting. Thus the arguments of the defendant and of the dissent that only the secondary meaning was intended is not supported. “Carry” includes carrying in a vehicle. Moreover, the purpose of the state to prevent the combination of drugs and guns, as well as the history of the statute do not suport such a limitation of the word. The other arguments of the defendant also lack foundation. First, he states that there is a distinction in law between the words “carry” and “transport” since the latter word has been used in other laws connected with this issue to convey a different and more general meaning. However, the two words are not interchangeable as “transport” doesn’t convey personal agency or possession to some extent at least. Secondly, he argues that since “uses” as related to a firearm has been taken to mean the active use of a firearm, similar considerations should govern the interpretation of “ carry” rather than the broad meaning. In answer, the court held that the meaning of “carry” should not be solely determined by the meaning of “use” since both have their own meaning. If the interpretation of the defendant is allowed, it would leave the act of carrying a firearm in a car out of the reach of the statute, and so go against the whole objective of the law. The defendant also argues that if this meaning is allowed, all passengers in all types of vehicles like buses, ships or trains who had a firearm in checked luggage would have to be jailed for it. This does not consider the rest of the statute which speaks of a gun carried or used during or in connection with a drug crime. The legislative history does not lend weight to the other argument of the defendant that “carry” should include the nuance of immediate availability. The final argument he presented is that the statute is ambiguous, making the rule of lenity applicable to him. But the extent of ambiguity is not so much as to justify this argument. While most laws contain some gray areas, only when the lack of clarity is present to a grievous degree would the rule of lenity apply. In this case, the decision is not a guess but a firm interpretation of the intention behind the law, concerning the defendant’s actions. The verdict is affirmed.

    Dissent. (Ginsberg, J.) The word “carries” has more meanings than one, and includes the sense of transporting in a vehicle. However, this is not the intended meaning in Section 924(c)(1), which envisages the keeping of a firearm on the premises or in one’s vehicle with the intention of having it ready as a weapon. The meaning can be made clear only with reference to the statute, and not from searching in general literature or the Bible or dictionaries. This is the fault of the majority’s approach. Instead, the aim of the statute can be inferred from the provision of mandatory minimum sentences. It is meant to cover cases when the gun is a direct threat to life, that is when the gun is in the defendant’s hand or ready to it at the time of the crime. The last argument is that the statute is not clear, at best, in using this word, and so such lack of clarity should be terminated by giving the benefit to the defendant in this case as is the rule.

    Concurrence. N/A

    Discussion. The need for the Court to decide in favor of the broader meaning of the word “carries” was not really present, as even if Section 924(c)(1) had been ruled inapplicable to this case, the presence of the gun in the vehicle in association with drug trafficking would have drawn extra punishment under the federal sentencing guidelines, in accordance with the severity of the drug crime. Thus the question of a gap or leaving relevant conduct without judicial notice does not arise, even with a narrower interpretation of the word in question. The flexible sentencing guidelines actually meant  that the defendant would have received 4 months more because of the presence of the firearm, as against the mandatory five years under Section 924(c)(1).


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