How do the police prove I was in possession of drugs?
How does the law define possession? We all know that there are charges of possessing a handgun, or possessing an illegal drug. Sometimes, it's obvious, for example when the person has a gun in their belt loop or they are using drugs. But other times, it is not so clear and obvious. What if you are a passenger in a car and someone has drugs under the seat? Or a gun left in your room that belongs to someone else? Often times, people charged with possession of contraband, like guns and drugs, are not really the ones "possessing" it. Fortunately, trials produce evidence to make a determination beyond a reasonable doubt whether the accused was the person possessing. The appeals court recently considered one such case in the matter of Rafeal Santana.
In this case the defendant, Rafael Santana, was convicted by a jury of possession of cocaine based on a theory of constructive possession. Constructive possession is when the illegal item isn't exactly on the person.
First, the issue in the case was the sufficiency of the proof. Police found cocaine in the glove compartment of a car. Police pulled the defendant over for a traffic violation. Officers saw the cocaine only because after the officer asked the defendant for his license and registration.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court found that the totality of the evidence was not sufficient to find that the defendant had previous knowledge of the cocaine beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is constructive possession?
The test for sufficiency of evidence is “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Even if a person is not in actual possession of contraband, he or she can be in constructive possession. To show constructive possession, the Commonwealth must show that the defendant knew of the existence of the item. It must also show he had the ability and intent to exercise dominion and control over it. Circumstantial evidence can be used to show constructive possession, but mere presence in proximity to contraband is not sufficient to establish constructive possession.
What if I do not know about the presence of drugs?
In this case, the Court was faced with the critical question of whether there was sufficient evidence of knowledge—that the defendant knew of the presence of cocaine.
Moreover, actors relevant to determine this included:
- Who owned or had control of the car
- Whether anyone else was present in the car
- Whether the contraband was in plain view or hidden
- The demeanor of the defendant, including whether he took any evasive actions
- Facts that tended to show that the defendant knew of, or had control of, the contents of the car
What is evidence of constructive possession?
The Commonwealth cited three particular aspects of evidence to support their argument that the defendant had constructive possession:
- The defendant was the driver and sole occupant of the car
- Defendant stated that he had just replaced the axles in “his car”
- The defendant acted evasively by trying to cover the bag with papers
Moreover the Court established that the defendant as the sole occupant of a car is not by itself sufficient. The Court rejected that the defendant’s statement that the car belonged to him established knowledge. The car registration belonged to a woman with a different address than his. This falls short of showing exclusive or primary control establishing knowledge of the contents of the glove compartment.
The Commonwealth argued that the defendant’s effort to conceal the bag of cocaine constituted “evasive behavior.” The Court disagreed. There was no evidence of any action by the defendant that showed knowledge in advance. The defendant himself exposed the cocaine by choosing to look in the glove compartment, never directed to do so. The defendant reacted to seeing the cocaine at the same time the officer did.
The Court ultimately reversed the conviction. The evidence of possession that the Commonwealth brought forward at trial was not sufficient.
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