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Law School Case Brief

Smith v. United States - 508 U.S. 223, 113 S. Ct. 2050 (1993)

Rule:

The "in relation to" language allays explicitly the concern that a person can be punished under 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(c)(1) for committing a drug trafficking offense while in possession of a firearm, even though the firearm's presence is coincidental or entirely unrelated to the crime. Instead, the gun at least must facilitate, or have the potential of facilitating, the drug trafficking offense. 

Facts:

After petitioner John Angus Smith offered to trade an automatic weapon to an undercover officer for cocaine, he was charged with numerous firearm and drug trafficking offenses. The indictment against him alleged that: (1) Smith had presented an undercover law enforcement officer, who was posing as a pawnshop dealer, with an offer to exchange the accused's MAC-10 machinegun and silencer for cocaine; and (2) the undercover officer had told Smith that the officer was not in the narcotics business, but that the officer was willing to see if he could track down some cocaine for a MAC-10. The indictment alleged that Smith knowingly used a MAC-10 and its silencer during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime. After trial in federal district court, Smith was convicted by a jury for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and attempt to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. The trial court sentenced him to an enhanced 30-year sentence for using a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(c)(1). On appeal, Smith argued that the penalty for using a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense covered only situations in which the firearm was used as a weapon. According to petitioner, § 924(c)(1) did not extend to individuals who used a firearm solely as a medium of exchange for narcotics. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in affirming on appeal: (1) rejected the argument that § 924(c)(1) covered only situations in which the firearm was used as a weapon, and that the provision did not extend to persons who used a firearm solely as a medium of exchange or for barter; and (2) expressed the view that for purposes of § 924(c)(1), any use of a firearm to facilitate in any manner the commission of the offense sufficed. Smith was granted a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

Was Smith's conviction and sentence proper?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's judgment. The Court ruled that the exchange of a gun for narcotics constituted "use" of a firearm "during and in relation to" a drug trafficking crime within the meaning of 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(c)(1).

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