Interesting Constructive Possession Case

The last batch of opinions from the court of appeals included a really interesting constructive possession case.The facts of State v. Slaughter, __ N.C. App. __ (2011), are as follows. Officers executed a search warrant at a mobile home. The defendant did not live in the home but was present at the time of the search. When the police entered the residence, they found the defendant and two other men in a bedroom. In the bedroom and an adjoining bathroom, the officers found “three handguns, digital scales, a lockbox, a box of plastic Ziploc-style bags, a large Ziploc-style bag containing marijuana packed in smaller bags, blunt wraps, a grinder, a cigar tube, ‘some tore up parts of a cigar that ha[d] been used to roll a marijuana cigarette,’ a knife, a ledger, $7,000.00 in cash in the bathroom sink, $7,182.00 in cash from elsewhere in the bathroom, and $24,500.00 in a white bag in the bedroom.”

The defendant was charged with various drug-related offenses and was convicted of PWISD marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. On appeal, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the convictions, because there was insufficient evidence that he constructively possessed the marijuana and the paraphernalia. The majority began by acknowledging that the “defendant did not have exclusive control over the place where the contraband was found. In addition, there was no evidence that he owned any other items found in proximity to the contraband, that he was the only person who could have placed the contraband in the positions where it was found, that he acted nervously in front of law enforcement personnel, that he resided in or regularly visited the premises where the contraband was found, or that he possessed a large amount of cash on his person.” Nonetheless, because he “was in a [small] room surrounded by bags of marijuana, marijuana residue, stacks of cash, bags of cash, handguns, blunts, rolling papers, a grinder, and packaging paraphernalia such as plastic baggies and scales,” the majority sustained the conviction. It determined that the state’s evidence of “proximity to and knowledge of the contraband” was sufficient to establish constructive possession under precedents such as State v. Miller, 363 N.C. 96 (2009).

The dissenting judge viewed the evidence as showing nothing more than the defendant’s presence, which, under cases such as State v. James, 81 N.C. App. 91 (1986), is insufficient to establish constructive possession. The dissenter acknowledged that the defendant was likely aware of the marijuana and other items in the room, but argued that such awareness, absent other evidence, does not show any intention or ability to control the contraband, which is a requirement of possession.

Given the split decision in the state’s favor, this case seems certain to be reviewed by our supreme court. So I’ll refrain from commenting on it extensively, and instead will pose a question in the hopes of eliciting readers’ thoughts: are vehicle cases such as Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366 (2003) (officers who found drugs and cash in a car had probable cause to arrest all occupants; it was “an entirely reasonable inference . . . that any or all . . . of the occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over” the drugs; the fact that they were together in a small space suggested a common enterprise), apposite? Pringle wasn’t cited in either opinion, perhaps suggesting that the court of appeals thought not.