Strict Construction of Federal Criminal Laws U.S. Supreme Court Amicus Brief Watson v. United States

Michael Harless Constitutional Law, Firearms Law, U. S. Supreme Court

On behalf of Gun Owners Foundation and the Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund, we filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Watson v. United States.  This brief asks the Court to overturn the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and to re-establish the common law rule of strict construction of criminal statutes.  In this case, an undercover agent sought to buy drugs from Watson, and offered a firearm as part of the purchase price.  The federal government indicted Watson for not only the drug sale, but also for the “use” of a firearm in connection with a federal drug trafficking crime, which would greatly increase the sentence if convicted.  Clearly, in the normal sense of the word, receiving a gun is not “using” a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime, but the Fifth Circuit interpreted the word “use” broadly to encompass receipt.  Had the rule of strict construction been applied to this case, and “use” interpreted in its normal sense, Mr. Watson would not be faced with a mandatory additional minimum prison sentence of five years under 18 U.S.C. section 924(c).  Our amicus brief also asks the Court to reject the modern “rule of lenity” that has proved to be no substitute for strict construction.  Strict construction of federal criminal law is necessary to preserve constitutional separation of powers, as well as principles of federalism.  Our amicus brief illustrates how allowing police and prosecutors to go beyond the words of the statute to define a crime opens up opportunities for abuse.

The firm’s amicus brief in Watson v. United States was discussed by former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts, in his excellent book The Tyranny of Good Intentions:  How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice , published March 25, 2008, by Three Rivers Press.

Link to brief