SMITH v. UNITED STATES

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
91-8674
Petitioner 
Smith
Respondent 
United States
Advocates
(By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the petitioner)
(Argued the cause for the United States)
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Facts of the Case 

John Angus Smith offered to trade an automatic weapon, a MAC-10, to an undercover officer for cocaine. Subsequently, he was charged with numerous firearm and drug trafficking offenses. Federal law imposes mandatory sentence enhancement penalties, specifically 30 years for a "machinegun", if a defendant "during and in relation to . . . [a] drug trafficking crime[,] uses . . . a firearm." A jury convicted Smith on all counts, which triggered the sentence enhancement. On appeal, Smith argued that the federal penalty for using a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense covers only situations in which the firearm is used as a weapon, not as a medium of exchange. The Court of Appeals disagreed. It held that the plain language of the penalty does not require that a firearm be used as a weapon, but that it applies to any use of a gun that facilitates, in any fashion, the perpetration of a drug offense.

Question 

Does trading a gun for drugs make a convicted defendant eligible for sentence enhancement under a federal law, which requires such treatment if the defendant "during and in relation to . . . [a] drug trafficking crime[,] uses . . . a firearm?"

Conclusion 
Decision: 6 votes for United States, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 18 U.S.C. 924

Yes. In a 6-3 decision, authored by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court ruled that a criminal who trades his or her firearm for drugs "uses" it "during and in relation to . . . [a] drug trafficking crime," which is within the bounds of the sentence enhancement. Justice O'Connor wrote that Congress intended to make the word "use" as broad as possible when it wrote the law. The law does not require proof that a defendant used the gun as a weapon.

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SMITH v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 01 September 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1992/1992_91_8674>.
SMITH v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1992/1992_91_8674 (last visited September 1, 2014).
"SMITH v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed September 1, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1992/1992_91_8674.