Constructive Possession: Can I be convicted of a crime if I didn't have anything on me?

Pennsylvania and United States law make the possession of all sorts of substances and objects illegal. For example, state and federal law may make it illegal to possess drugs, guns, and other types of contraband under all sorts of different circumstances. When a defendant is arrested and charged with a possessory offense, the actual possession of the contraband in question is an element of the offense. This means that the government must prove that the defendant possessed the thing beyond a reasonable doubt. Although this sounds simple in theory, possession can often be difficult to prove because police and other law enforcement officers often find contraband which is not physically on someone. In that case, the doctrine of constructive possession may come into play, and it may provide a strong defense in your case. 

What is Constructive Possession?

Constructive possession is a legal doctrine which allows prosecutors to bring criminal charges and potentially obtain convictions for possessory offenses like drug possession and a Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act (“VUFA”) in cases where the contraband was not actually found physically on the defendant. In cases where the defendant is facing gun charges or drug charges, constructive possession is often a defense at trial even if the motion to suppress was unsuccessful. However, constructive possession, unlike physical possession, can be difficult to explain and for jurors to understand.

Physical possession is relatively simply. If you are a felon and you have a gun in your pocket, then you are committing a Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act. If the police arrest you and find the gun in your pocket, then they can properly charge you with a weapons offense. In that type of case, the main defense to a gun charge would usually be a motion to suppress – if the police stopped and searched you illegally, then the evidence could be excluded and the case dismissed. But because the gun was in your pocket, it is pretty clear to whom the gun belonged at the time the police stopped you, and you would have been in physical possession of the gun. That is not to say you will automatically be convicted if you lose a motion to suppress. However, any defenses other than a motion to suppress would likely focus on whether the police officers are telling the truth instead of whether you were legally in possession of the gun.

Can I be convicted if the gun wasn’t on me?

Constructive possession, on the other hand, could apply when the gun or drugs are not actually in your pocket, waistband, or somewhere else on your person. For example, it may apply when contraband is found in a car or a house or when drugs are stored in a stash somewhere near where someone is selling them. In that case, the prosecution may still be able to obtain a conviction for drug possession if the prosecution can prove that you constructively possessed the drugs.

How can I be charged with possession if I didn’t have the drugs on me?  

In order to establish constructive possession, the government must prove something more than the defendant’s mere presence near the item in question. In addition, the government must show that the defendant had both the intent and the power to control the contraband. Obviously, where the defendant is found near drugs, the defendant probably had the power to control them because the defendant could have easily walked over and picked them up. However, that alone does not make them the defendant’s drugs. If other people have access to that area, then the drugs could belong to those other people. It may not have been a great idea to hang around in the area where they were stored, but that does not make them the defendant’s. Instead, the prosecution must also show that the defendant had the intent to control the drugs. This intent element is what makes constructive possession difficult to prove.

How does the prosecution prove constructive possession?

In determining whether the prosecution has proven the intent necessary to show constructive possession, courts will look at the totality of the circumstances. This means they will look at things like how close the object is to the defendant, whether the defendant makes any statements, whether police observed the defendant making quick movements which suggest the defendant was trying to hide the object, and whether the defendant displays consciousness of guilt such as nervousness or flight. The degree to which the contraband was visible will also be relevant, and a court will also likely consider whether the prosecution can connect the defendant to the area from which the drug or gun was recovered by police.

Thus, if the defendant was the owner and operator of a car from which the police recovered a gun, a court is more likely to find that the defendant knew about and owned the gun than if the defendant was merely borrowing the car from the friend. However, the defendant's mere ownership of the vehicle or police finding paperwork connecting a defendant to a house do not automatically establish constructive possession because the passenger could have brought the gun into the car and tried to hide it when the police pulled the vehicle over. Instead, the court must look at the totality of the circumstances. This means that there are cases in which illegal drugs and guns are found in cars or houses and it is simply not possible for the government to prove to whom those items belonged.

The constructive possession doctrine protects innocent people from being convicted of possessory offenses merely based on their proximity to the contraband. If I am watching television in my living room and my friend puts his bong on the table, then I cannot necessarily be convicted of drug paraphernalia just because my friend left the bong there. At the same time, it is fairly easy for police to try to use the doctrine against a given defendant by testifying to factors such as nervousness, furtive movements, and incriminating statements which simply may not have existed. In cases where police find a gun in a car, they are under a lot of pressure to charge someone with the gun and testify in such a way that it will lead to a conviction. Therefore, it is extremely common to see constructive possession cases where the police testimony will attempt to establish circumstances which suggest that one of the occupants of the vehicle must have been the owner of the contraband. However, in order for a defendant to be convicted, the judge or jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant constructively possessed the item in question, and vague reaching movements or nervous behavior simply may not be enough. Our criminal lawyers excel at cross examining police witnesses in preliminary hearings, pre-trial motions to suppress, and at trial, and we will use our skills to fight allegations of constructive possession. 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Drug and Gun Cases

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Your best bet is to stay away from things that are illegal. If you are on probation or parole, or you have a record which disqualifies you from possessing a firearm, it is risky to be around drugs or a gun. Even if they do not belong to you, the police may charge you under a constructive possession theory. You may be able to sort everything out in court, but the criminal justice system is often unpredictable. Fortunately, if you are charged with a crime, with very few exceptions, you have the right to a jury trial at which the government must prove to twelve jurors that you committed the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. If you are facing criminal charges or believe you may be under investigation for a crime, you should speak with one of our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers immediately. We will be able to evaluate whether constructive possession could be a defense to your charges. We offer a free, 15-minute criminal defense strategy session. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a defense attorney today.