Friday, December 5, 2014

'Constructive Possession' in Drug Possession Crimes

Both federal and state governments are changing the way drug crimes are prosecuted. Sentencing guidelines that require strict prison terms are being discarded for more court discretion. States are also implementing drug courts, or diversion programs, that allow defendants to enter into drug treatment programs in lieu of jail.  There seems to be an understanding that drug offenders need treatment rather than punishment.

Even with positive changes in California, with respect to drug crimes, because of Proposition 47, which mandated that certain crimes be prosecuted as misdemeanors instead of felonies, there are still situations in which an accused may be wrongfully charged. For example, an individual may not even know that illicit drugs were near or by him/her at the time of his/her arrest.

Health and Safety Code sections 11350, et al prohibits the possession of certain controlled substances. "Possession" is not limited to drugs on a person, like in his pockets, wallet, or belongings. Possession can also be "constructive" or "joint."

"Constructive" possession has been defined in a number of cases on appeal in California. People v. Showers (1968) 68 Cal.2d 639 defined constructive possession as follows:

"The accused has constructive possession when he maintains control or a right to control the contraband. Possession may be imputed when the contraband is found in a location which is immediately and exclusively accessible to the accused and subject to his dominion and control."

"The accused is also deemed to have the same possession as any person actually possessing the narcotic pursuant to his direction or permission where he retains the right to exercise dominion or control over the property. People v. Mardian (1975) 47 Cal.App.3d 1. However, merely being near a drug, or being in association with someone in possession of a drug, in of itself, was insufficient to establish possession under the law. Exercise or control of an area still requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Let's give a hypothetical, when"constructive" possession may be in dispute. Roommate A is living with Roommate B to save money. Roommate A does not abuse drugs. Roommate A is a student with a steady job. Roommate B smokes methamphetamine, but does so privately. Roommate A is unaware of Roommate B's personal habits. The police, on a tip from an informant, execute a search warrant in Roommate A and Roommate B's shared room. Roommate B is on vacation. Roommate A is studying. The police find methamphetamine in Roommate B's drawer, which is near Roommate A's bed. The police arrest Roommate A.

In the hypothetical above, Roommate A may be able to get the case dismissed because he was not in possession of the methamphetamine, including "constructive possession." In spite of the fact that he was near the drawer, and could possibly open the drawer, under California law, Roommate A probably did not exercise dominion or control over the property in the drawer. He didn't have the requisite intent, nor did he exercise control of Roommate B's drawer.

Substance abuse is most often caused by disease and studies have shown that mental health services, not prison, is the best way to combat drug crimes. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to retain a criminal defense attorney if you, or someone you care about, has been charged with a drug crime. Experienced attorneys can see if alternatives to jail are available. Further, if there are facts of the case that suggest an accused may prevail at a preliminary hearing or P.C. 1538 hearing, a criminal defense attorney could aggressively advocate on your behalf. Our office welcomes your calls and questions.