Sunday, August 12, 2018

Defending Against Claim of Constructive Possession

by Jill Paperno,

Author of "Representing the Accused: A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense"

As you know, there are different ways a client may be charged with unlawful possession of drugs or a weapon or other contraband.  They may be charged with actual possession,  when the item is found on their person.  Or they may be charged with constructive possession, when it is alleged they have dominion and control over the location in which the item was found.  Under some circumstances (and please check the statutes for the specific circumstances in each case) they may be accused of possession based on a statutory presumption.   

All too often, our clients are accused of possessing items in locations where they are spending a short time or passing through.  When a client is accused of possession under those circumstances, we should challenge the claim by moving against the accusatory instrument, requesting greater specification of the dominion and control in the request for bill of particulars, seeking suppression through hearings, and focusing on that at trial.  (If a defendant is accused based solely on a presumption, the defendant has automatic standing to challenge an unlawful search of a location.  If they are accused based on the presumption and constructive possession, you must ask in your request for bill of particulars what the factual basis is for a conclusion that the defendant exercised dominion and control.  Argue that the prosecution is merely making a constructive claim to avoid the automatic standing.  (Often they are.)   

When a defendant is charged with constructive possession, they must have greater involvement with the location than merely being present.  In  People v Williams, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 4221 decided June 8th, the Fourth Department reversed defendant's conviction, concluding that the defendant's connection with the apartment where she was arrested, and where it was claimed she had dominion and control, was too limited.  The Court stated, 

Where, as here, there is no evidence that the defendant actually possessed the controlled substance, the People are required to establish that the defendant "exercised dominion or control' over the property by a sufficient level of control over the area in which the contraband is found or over the person from whom the contraband is seized" (People v Manini, 79 NY2d 561, 573 [1992]; see Penal Law § 10.00 [8]; People v Russaw, 114 AD3d 1261, 1261-1262 [4th Dept 2014], lv denied 22 NY3d 1202 [2014]). The People may establish constructive possession by circumstantial evidence (see People v Torres, 68 NY2d 677, 678-679 [1986]; People v Boyd, 145 AD3d 1481, 1481-1482,  [4th Dept 2016], lv denied 29 NY3d 947,  [2017]). It is well established, however, that a defendant's mere presence in the area where drugs are discovered is insufficient to establish constructive possession (see Boyd, 145 AD3d at 1482; People v Knightner, 11 AD3d 1002, 1004, 782 N.Y.S.2d 333 [4th Dept 2004], lv denied 4 NY3d 745, 824 N.E.2d 59, 790 N.Y.S.2d 658 [2004]).
People v Williams, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 4221, 

In this case, the defendant was present in the apartment when the search warrant was executed, but there was no evidence she was a frequent occupant or resident of the premises.  The investigator also testified records established the defendant lived there (huh?) but there was no evidence as to how the information was made part of those records, and that through the investigator's surveillance over hundreds of occasions, the defendant was only seen there twice. He testified "typical women's clothing" was found in the apartment but provided no details, and photos did not appear to show such clothing except three pairs of shoes that could be the defendant's, in contrast to the detailed description he gave of men's clothing also found there.
 

The Court concluded: 

Inasmuch as there was no evidence, other than her presence, that specifically connected defendant to the apartment where the contraband was found, "the People failed to prove that [she] exercised dominion and control over the contraband, and therefore failed to prove the possession element of the counts as charged" (People v Brown, 133 AD3d 772, 773 [2d Dept 2015], lv denied 26 NY3d 1143 [2016]; see generally People v Gautreaux-Perez, 31 AD3d 1209, 1210 [4th Dept 2006]).
People v Williams, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 4221, *3-4 

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