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Muscarello v. United States - 524 U.S. 125, 118 S. Ct. 1911 (1998)


The existence of some statutory ambiguity is not sufficient to warrant application of the rule of lenity, for most statutes are ambiguous to some degree; the rule applies only if, after seizing everything from which aid can be derived, the court can make no more than a guess as to what Congress intended; to invoke the rule, the court must conclude that there is a grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute.


This involved a consolidation of two cases that presented the question concerning the definition of the term "carries a firearm" in 18 USCS 924(c)(1), which imposes a 5-year mandatory prison term on a person who used or carried a firearm during and in relation to any drug trafficking crime. In the first case, petitioner Frank J. Muscarello unlawfully sold marijuana, which he carried in his truck to the place of sale. Thereafter, police officers found a handgun locked in the truck's glove compartment. In the second case, Donald Cleveland and Enrique Gray-Santana, placed several guns in a bag, put the bag in the trunk of a car, and then traveled by car to a proposed drug-sale point, where they intended to steal drugs from the sellers. Federal agents at the scene stopped them, searched the cars, found the guns and drugs, and arrested them. In both cases the Courts of Appeals found that the petitioners had carried the guns during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense. Subsequently, petitioners had sought a review of the appellate courts' judgments.


Did the Courts of Appeals for the First and the Fourth Circuits err in its holdings that the petitioners in the two cases had carried firearms in violation of § 924(c)(1)?




The United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgments of the Courts of Appeals. The Court held that the phrase "carries a firearm" in 924(c)(1) applies to a person who knowingly possesses and conveys a firearm in a vehicle, including in the locked glove compartment or trunk of car, which the person accompanies, as under the primary meaning of "carry," one can, as a matter of ordinary English, "carry firearms" in a wagon, car, truck, or other vehicle that one accompanies. According to the Court, there was no linguistic reason to think that Congress intended to limit "carries" in the statute to its secondary meaning, which suggested support rather than movement or transportation. The Court further held that neither the statute's basic purpose to combat the dangerous combination of drugs and guns nor its legislative history supports circumscribing "carry" by applying an "on the person" limitation.

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