Man’s Constructive Possession of the Contents of a Woman’s Purse

May a man be held criminally responsible for the contents of his girlfriend’s purse? Yes, on the facts of State v. Mitchell, the court of appeals ruled yesterday.

In Mitchell, an officer stopped the defendant for speeding. The officer ordered the defendant and his girlfriend out of the car. Subsequent events, not highly relevant here, gave the officer probable cause to search the vehicle for drugs. The defendant then stated that there was a gun in the glove compartment. Indeed, the officer found a handgun in a purse in the glove compartment, and also found marijuana in the trunk. Another officer obtained consent to search the defendant’s person and found a scale and over $2,000 in cash.

The defendant was charged with, inter alia, possession of a firearm by a felon, and he was convicted. On appeal, he contended that his trial lawyer should have moved to dismiss the felon in possession charge. The court of appeals ruled that such a motion would have been fruitless because there was sufficient evidence that the defendant constructively possessed the gun.

The court based its ruling on the premise that the driver of a vehicle “has the power to control the contents of the car.” State v. Best, __ N.C. App. __, 713 S.E.2d 556 (2011). The court noted that the defendant was aware of the gun’s presence, given that he advised the officer about it. And the court observed that there was no evidence that the gun was registered to the girlfriend, notwithstanding her testimony at trial that the gun was hers. The court therefore distinguished State v. Alston, 131 N.C. App. 514 (1998) (insufficient evidence of constructive possession where a gun, registered to the defendant’s wife, was found on the center console of a vehicle; the defendant was the front-seat passenger and his wife was the driver).

Obviously, there are times when a man should be held responsible for the contents of a woman’s purse, like when the man instructs the woman to hide his contraband in the purse. See, e.g., United States v. Mokol, 646 F.3d 479 (7th Cir. 2011) (“[T]he Government’s case included evidence that would support a conclusion that [the defendant] was a felon in possession through constructive possession [based on] the handgun [his girlfriend] testified to carrying in her purse at [the defendant’s] behest.”); State v. Jones, 45 P.3d 1062 (Wash. 2002) (“[The defendant] had constructive possession of the purse because he exercised control over his car and the contents therein, he stored items in the purse, and he admitted that the gun in the purse belonged to him.”).

On the other hand, if a man isn’t aware of the contents of a woman’s purse, he clearly isn’t responsible for the contents. See, e.g., State v. Daniels, 234 P.3d 976 (Or. 2010) (insufficient evidence that the defendant constructively possessed drugs in girlfriend’s bag, even though the bag was in his bedroom, where there was no evidence that he knew what we in the bag); United States v. Houston, 364 F.3d 243 (5th Cir. 2004) (insufficient evidence that the defendant constructively possessed a pistol in his wife’s purse where “[t]he gun was not in plain view, and [the wife, not the defendant] disclosed the location of the gun [to police]”).

Mitchell is interesting because it is between the two extremes. The defendant was clearly aware of the gun. But the state presented no direct evidence that the gun actually belonged to the defendant and was merely stored in the purse at his request. Of course, human experience suggests that the latter scenario is entirely possible, and the rather hard line taken by the court of appeals on the constructive possession issue may reflect the judges’ natural skepticism about the true ownership of the gun.

3 comments on “Man’s Constructive Possession of the Contents of a Woman’s Purse

  1. I don’t think Judges care about the tru ownership of the gun, drugs, etc as long as the item is within the defendants realm of control. Even juries tend to convict, on this theory of constructive possession, way too often…without there being any independant knowlegde/evidence against the defendant. This theory or contsruct works an injustice in many cases.

  2. I wanted to point out that there is no such thing as gun registration in North Carolina. The Court’s comment that there was no evidence that the gun was registered to the girlfriend is as nonsensical as saying that there was no evidence that the purse was registered to the girlfriend. Frankly, whoever authored that comment should be embarrassed at their ignorance.

    • Actually, Durham County requires all handguns to be registered with the Clerk of Superior Court within ten days of purchase. This was special legislation passed by the General Assembly back in 1935, and applies only to Durham County. The requirement appears to be another hold over from the Jim Crow era, along with most of the rest of North Carolina’s firearms laws (pistol purchase permits, ban on firearms at parades and protests, and the (now-repealed) ban on weapons possession during a declared state of emergency). I still find it funny when black politicians fight to keep these laws on the books, given their original intended purpose: to keep black people from getting guns.