The court of appeals just reversed a defendant’s conviction for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. It’s a case with interesting facts that raises questions about whether the owner or the driver of a vehicle is responsible for its contents.
State v. Bailey began when two Roxboro officers heard several gunshots at an apartment complex. Responding to the scene, one of the officers saw a car leaving the area. The officer stopped the car. The defendant was in the passenger seat, and his girlfriend was driving. The officer asked whether there were any weapons in the car, and the defendant said that there was a gun in the backseat. The gun turned out to be an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle. It was warm, as if it had recently been fired.
Additional relevant facts include the following:
- “[T]he rifle was registered to” the defendant’s girlfriend. As an aside, although this statement may reflect the trial testimony, North Carolina does not have a registry for long guns, so I am not sure exactly what it means.
- The car was titled in the defendant’s name. However, the defendant testified at trial that although he had helped buy the car, his girlfriend used and controlled it.
- A shell casing that was compatible with the rifle was found in the apartment complex.
- The defendant testified, and denied possessing or firing the rifle. He claimed that he and his girlfriend left the complex upon hearing gunshots.
- A gunshot residue test performed on the defendant was inconclusive.
- The defendant’s fingerprints were not found on the rifle.
The defendant was charged with, and convicted of, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, but the court of appeals ruled that the State’s evidence was insufficient to support the conviction.
It reasoned that the defendant was not in actual possession of the gun, so the State needed to prove constructive possession. Further, because the defendant was not in sole control of the car, the State needed to offer “other incriminating circumstances” beyond the defendant’s presence there. And the court found no such circumstances, noting the lack of physical evidence tying the defendant to the gun and concluding that the defendant’s knowledge of the gun’s presence was not enough to render him in possession of it.
The court’s conclusion is in line with State v. Alston, 131 N.C. App. 514 (1998), a similar case in which officers found a gun in a car with a female driver and a male passenger. The gun in that case was registered to the driver, the car was not registered to either occupant, and the court of appeals found that there was insufficient evidence that the passenger was more than merely present alongside the gun.
On the other hand, recall State v. Mitchell, __ N.C. App. __, 735 S.E.2d 438 (2012), a case I blogged about here. In that case, the court of appeals affirmed a male driver’s conviction for possessing a gun found in the female passenger’s purse inside the glove compartment of the vehicle.
All of these are close cases, and reasonable minds might differ about which set of facts is the strongest for the State. In each case, the court of appeals emphasized that the driver of a vehicle controls the vehicle and is responsible for its contents. In Bailey, though, the registered owner of the vehicle was inside the car, and one could argue that in that setting, ultimate authority rests with the owner. In drug cases, the court has indicated that ownership of a vehicle provides a measure of control. See, e.g., State v. Hudson, 206 N.C. App. 482 (2010) (stating that “[i]n car cases . . . ownership [is] sufficient” to create an inference of constructive possession and observing that “courts in this State have held consistently” that both drivers and owners of vehicles have the power to control the vehicles’ contents). And in the context of standing to object to an allegedly unlawful search of a vehicle, ownership of a vehicle is generally sufficient to confer standing. Cf. Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978) (ruling that defendants lacked standing because they were “passengers occupying a car which they neither owned nor leased”). In fact, ownership may be more significant than who is driving in the Fourth Amendment context. Cf. State v. Hodges, 195 N.C. App. 390 (2009) (holding that the driver of a car lacked standing to object to a search because he “claimed no ownership interest in the vehicle” and deferred to the passenger regarding authority to search the vehicle).
The court’s opinion in Bailey was unanimous, so we’ll have to wait and see whether the State chooses to seek further review, and if so, whether the supreme court is interested in the issue.