Interesting Constructive Possession Case

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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.

2 comments on “Interesting Constructive Possession Case

  1. OK, I’ll bite : The status of cars has always been lesser than a dwelling on any type, and this carries into perceptions no doubt..People can come to a home for many reasons and end up together, whereas a vehicles occupants generally depart and arrive together and in such a cramped space may well be assumed to be more aware of contraband then in a home where so many opportunities for secreting illegal items exist.

    It is all based on assumptions, obviously, and as usual shows the disparity between the States views, as well as the Feds, on many issues, this one being used to bolster the police ability to continue mass arrests in the hopes of gaining confessions and to inflate statistics with charges, even if they end up dismissed later when the real owner is revealed.

    I pray the Supreme’s here in NC stick with the JAMES inclination to demand additional evidence before possession can be inferred or charged; if not we will see more costs and more grief and systemic abuses as groups of people. virtually anyone at any location at any time the police show up…hauled in and charged with the same crimes as the true perps..and who must rot in jail with secured bonds, whose families must receive emergency services due to their absence at rgeat taxpayer cost, attorney fees, court and police fees..and eventually most will be thrown out, or worse yet, if possession gets easier to prove, jails and probation costs skyrocket.

    Giving the police easier ways to throw marginally involved or non involved people in jail is a loser of an idea, with no benefits and huge costs..no good.

  2. Ive got an interesting scenerio for you. A defendant goes to the residence of a family member occupied by about 4 adults. Its a rainy day but surveillance is being done on the residence by one officer. After a while two of the people in the residence leave to go to the store down the street. As they are leaving, the police are pulling in to execute a search warrant on the owner of the residence for suspicion of selling drugs. Only two people are left in the house. As they enter, the police began asking about one of the people who left the scenes’ car, which was parked down the street. They were told the owner of the vehicle left. The police walked a drug dog around the vehicle and said it alerted. Drugs were found in the vehicle down the street. The officer who was doing the surveillance gave a description of a person he saw go to the vehicle before the warrant was executed. But no one was in or near the vehicle at the time. The keys were found in the house on a computer desk that no one was really near. The owner of the residence claimed the drugs found in the house. The other defendant left in the house really didnt match the clothing description but he had a bald head, which fit the description of the person the officer said went to the car. Can he really be charged with the drugs in the car even if its not his car? The car wasnt his, he didnt have the key, he didnt fully fit the description, and he wasnt in possession of any drugs, and he drove a different car to the scene. Can he really be charged based on a bald head? Keep in mind, it was a rainy day. Is the crazy or is it just how the law works?

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