In a rare victory for convicted drug criminals, the Supreme Court on Wednesday narrowed a key federal law that adds an extra five-year prison term for a drug dealer who "uses or carries" a gun.
Until Wednesday, prosecutors and most federal courts have imposed that extra punishment if a weapon is found in the drug dealer's car, in a locked trunk or even a closet in a suspect's home.
If the weapon was "accessible" to a drug trafficker, it was used in the commission of the trafficker's crimes because it provided protection, prosecutors said.
But in a unanimous ruling, the high court threw out that definition as too broad. From now on, a criminal must hold, brandish or fire the weapon to get the extra punishment, the justices said. The "mere possession" of a gun is not enough, they added.
A Justice Department spokesman could not offer a precise figure on how many people would be affected by the ruling but the number is certainly "in the hundreds," he said. Inmates who are serving time could seek to shorten their terms based on the decision.
Though the outcome may seem surprising for a generally conservative high court, the outcome probably has less to do with ideology than semantics.
Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who is the court's leading literalist, has insisted that the justices follow the strict meaning of words written into law. Two years ago, during an argument in a related case, he commented that no one would say, "I use a cane" to mean he has a cane hanging on a hook in his closet.
If Congress wanted to punish gun possession by drug criminals, it would have written the word "possess" rather than "use," the court said.
The dictionary "definitions of 'use' imply action and implementation," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, speaking for the court.
Therefore, " 'use' must connote more than mere possession of a firearm by a person who commits a drug offense. . . . The government must show that the defendant actively employed the firearm during and in relation to the [actual] crime," she said.
This "certainly includes brandishing, displaying, bartering, striking with and, most obviously, firing or attempting to fire, a firearm," she added.
The decision, in the case Bailey vs. United States, 94-7448, overturned the extra five-year prison sentences imposed on two drug dealers in Washington.
In the first case, police found cocaine in the glove compartment of Roland Bailey's car and later found a loaded pistol in the trunk of his car. He was sentenced to four years for the cocaine violations and five more years for the gun offense.
In the second case, an undercover officer bought crack cocaine in Candisha Robinson's apartment and returned later to find an unloaded pistol in a locked trunk in her closet. She was given eight years for dealing in crack and five more years for having the gun.
Both convictions and long prison terms were upheld on a 5-4 vote by the U.S. appeals court here.
The U.S. appeals court in California was among those that has read the law broadly to authorize extra punishment for criminals who have a gun, regardless of whether they are actively using it.
The federal gun law originally was passed in the summer of 1968. Congress broadened the law in 1984 and 1988 to apply the extra penalty.