Supreme Court to define what 'carrying' gun means

December 13, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, addressing a federal law that adds lengthy prison time for carrying a gun during a drug crime, agreed yesterday to spell out what "carrying" means.

Accepting two cases for review, involving marijuana dealing in Louisiana and cocaine sales in New York, the court stepped in to resolve a widening conflict among lower courts over the meaning of the law.

The law at issue makes it a separate crime to "use or carry" a gun while committing specified crimes, including drug trafficking. Two years ago, the court made it more difficult for prosecutors to show that a gun was "used" in such a crime. Now, it is taking on a similar dispute over the word "carry."

The law tacks on five years to any sentence if a gun was involved, though the extra penalty can go as high as life in prison depending on the kind of gun and the number of prior convictions for using firearms during crimes.

Three men involved in the new cases argue that suspects carry a gun only when they actually hold it or have it in their clothing during a crime. If a gun is not "immediately accessible," their appeals contend, it is not being carried.

In the Louisiana case, the gun was in a locked glove compartment of a truck used in a marijuana transaction. In the New York case, three guns were found in the trunk of one of two cars used in a cocaine deal.

Lower courts ruled in both cases that the guns had in fact been "carried" because vehicles were "carrying" them at the time. It was not necessary, those courts said, for the weapons to be immediately accessible for use in the crime.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors who contend that a gun was "used" in a crime must prove that the gun had been "actively employed" -- held, or brandished. It is not enough that the gun was nearby, within reach, the court said. Since then, lower courts have divided on whether to impose similar limits on the concept of carrying firearms.

In a second gun case the justices agreed yesterday to review, the issue is whether someone can be convicted of selling guns without a license if that person did not know that a license was required.

Lower courts have been split on that question, too. Some courts have ruled that prosecutors must show that the guns were sold with knowledge that a license was required. Others have ruled, as the Justice Department contends, that such knowledge is not necessary for conviction.

The new case involves a Brooklyn, N.Y., man who bought guns illegally in Ohio and resold them in New York. He had no dealer's license.

The court will hold hearings in March on new cases granted review yesterday. Decisions will be issued by next summer.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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