Muscarello v. United States

524 U.S. 125, 118 S.Ct. 1911, 141 L.Ed.2d 111 (1998)

Quick Summary

Frank J. Muscarello (defendant) was involved in drug trafficking and had a gun in his vehicle’s glove compartment. Similarly, Donald Cleveland and Enrique Gray-Santana (defendants) had guns in their car’s trunk during a drug-related incident. The issue presented was whether ‘carries a firearm’ under federal law included firearms in vehicles.

The Supreme Court concluded that ‘carries a firearm’ does encompass firearms transported in vehicles during drug trafficking, affirming lower court decisions based on statutory interpretation and legislative intent.

Facts of the Case

Frank J. Muscarello (defendant) was arrested after selling marijuana, which he transported in his truck to the sale location. A handgun was discovered locked in the truck’s glove compartment. Muscarello admitted to carrying the gun for protection in connection with the drug offense but later contested that his carrying of the gun in the glove compartment did not fall within the statute’s definition of ‘carries a firearm.’

Similarly, Donald Cleveland and Enrique Gray-Santana (defendants) were apprehended while attempting to steal drugs, with several guns placed in a bag in the trunk of their car.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Muscarello was convicted of carrying a firearm in his vehicle during a drug trafficking crime.
  2. The court of appeals affirmed Muscarello’s conviction.
  3. Separately, Cleveland and Gray-Santana were also convicted under similar circumstances.
  4. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, consolidating Muscarello’s case with a similar case involving Cleveland and Gray-Santana.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the term ‘carries a firearm’ within the federal statute is limited to carrying firearms on one’s person or also applies to possession and conveyance of firearms in a vehicle.

Rule of Law

The statutory phrase ‘carries a firearm’ is not limited to carrying firearms on the person but also applies to an individual who knowingly possesses and conveys firearms in a vehicle, including in locked compartments such as glove compartments or trunks, while accompanying the vehicle.

Reasoning and Analysis

The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Breyer, interprets ‘carries a firearm’ according to its ordinary English meaning, which includes conveyance in a vehicle. The Court examined dictionary definitions, literary references, and modern press usage to support this interpretation.

The Court also considered the statute’s purpose, which is to deter the dangerous combination of drugs and guns, reasoning that limiting ‘carries’ to only firearms on the person would create a gap in coverage contrary to Congress’s intent.

Furthermore, the Court concluded that other statutory language, such as ‘during and in relation to,’ sufficiently narrows the application of the statute to prevent misuse and addresses petitioners’ concerns about extending coverage too broadly. The Court rejected petitioners’ arguments for a narrower interpretation, including their reliance on Bailey v. United States and the rule of lenity, finding no grievous ambiguity in the statute’s language.


The Supreme Court affirmed the judgments of the Courts of Appeals, holding that the term ‘carries a firearm’ includes the possession and conveyance of firearms in a vehicle during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Souter. The dissent argued that ‘carries’ should be confined to bearing arms ready for use as a weapon on or about one’s person, in line with an interpretation that is consistent with Bailey v. United States and the principle of lenity.

Key Takeaways

  1. ‘Carries a firearm’ is interpreted broadly to include transportation of firearms in vehicles, not just on one’s person.
  2. The purpose of the statute is to deter the combination of drugs and guns, regardless of how firearms are carried during the commission of drug crimes.
  3. The ruling ensures that individuals cannot evade enhanced penalties by keeping firearms in their vehicles rather than on their person during drug trafficking crimes.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes the 'use' of a firearm under legal statutes?

The ‘use’ of a firearm under legal statutes generally involves an action where the firearm is employed for its designed purpose or as a means to an end. This could mean discharging the weapon, brandishing it to intimidate, or even referencing its presence to exert control. The courts interpret ‘use’ based on the context of the situation.

  • For example: If during a robbery, a perpetrator threatens with a gun in their hand, even if not fired, this constitutes ‘use.’ Similarly, overtly signaling that they have a gun to control victims’ behavior would also qualify.

How does transporting a weapon in a vehicle relate to constructive possession?

Transporting a weapon in a vehicle can establish constructive possession if the individual has knowledge of and the ability to exercise control over the firearm. Even if the weapon isn’t physically on them, having it within reach or stored in a location they control implies constructive possession.

  • For example: A driver who keeps a gun locked in the glove compartment of their personal vehicle is deemed to have constructive possession of that firearm, even though it’s not directly on their person.

In what ways may statutory language influence the interpretation of criminal liability?

Statutory language shapes criminal liability by defining what conduct is prohibited or required. Specificity or vagueness in phrasing can affect interpretations of legal provisions, leading courts to either narrow or broaden the scope of what constitutes criminal behavior.

  • For example: A law stating ‘carrying firearms is prohibited in secured areas’ could be interpreted broadly to include firearms in vehicles parked within such areas if lawmakers intended to enhance security comprehensively.


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