PA Superior Court: Back Seat Passenger Not Automatically in Possession of Drugs and Guns in the Front of Car

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Parrish, reversing the defendant’s conviction for Possession with the Intent to Deliver (“PWID”), Conspiracy, Possession of a Controlled Substance, Paraphernalia, and gun charges such as Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act Section 6106. In Parrish, the Superior Court found that the evidence was insufficient to convict Parrish of the gun and drug charges because Parrish was merely the back seat passenger in a car which had guns and drugs in the front of the car.  

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Parrish

Parrish involved a motor vehicle stop. Police pulled a car over in Luzerne County for having illegally tinted windows. The vehicle pulled over on command, but as police approached the car, they noticed that it was rocking back and forth as if people were moving around inside of it. They could not see what caused the rocking because of the tinted windows. When the police got up to the car, the driver of the car rolled down the window. The officers immediately smelled marijuana and saw a plastic bag containing marijuana in plain view. They also saw the driver straddling the center console between the two front seats and the grip of a silver handgun protruding from under the front passenger seat. Obviously, that is a strange place for the driver of the car to sit. They saw the defendant, Parrish, seated behind the driver’s seat with his hands on the headrest of the driver’s seat.

Because they saw drugs and a gun in plain view, the officers immediately arrested the driver and Parrish. They searched the entire car. They found a black bag on the passenger side in the front of the car. That bag contained a loaded gun, 250 packets of heroin, 12 packets of methamphetamine, a baggie of loose heroin, two scales, and other drug paraphernalia and ammunition. They found marijuana on the passenger-side door and a .40 caliber handgun protruding from underneath the front passenger-side seat. The glove compartment contained an extra magazine of bullets, and in the trunk, they found a bulletproof vest. They found $1,335 in cash on the defendant and $2,168 on the driver. Parrish cooperated with the police during his arrest. He gave his real name, and he did not attempt to run.

Gun and Drug Charges Based on Constructive Possession

Police charged Parrish with various drug and gun charges, as well as Receiving Stolen Property. Before trial, the court separated the felon in possession of a firearm charge from the remaining charges so that the jury would not be prejudiced by knowing that the defendant had a prior criminal record. The defendant then proceeded by way of jury trial, and the jury convicted him of all charges.

At trial, police testified to the above facts. They also confirmed that Parrish was not the registered owner of the car, and he did not have a key to the glove compartment or trunk. Police also believed that based on the positions of the men in the car, the defendant was probably not the driver. They did not test any of the items for fingerprints or DNA. The Commonwealth also presented an expert witness to testify that based on the totality of the circumstances, the drugs in the bag were likely for sale and possessed with the intent to deliver.

In this case, the defense presented evidence, as well. The defendant called a friend to testify that he had been at a party at the friend’s house all afternoon on the day of the arrest. Parrish stayed at the party until approximately 2 am. The friend then asked the driver of the car to drive the defendant home. When the defendant left the party, he was not carrying a satchel or any kind of bag. The friend also saw defendant lay down in the back seat when the defendant got into the car. The jury convicted the defendant of all charges, and the trial court sentenced him to 88 to 176 months of incarceration in state prison.

The Appeal of the Criminal Case

The defendant filed post-sentence motions for reconsideration of the sentence, for a new trial, and for discovery which the prosecution had apparently not provided prior to trial. The trial court denied those motions, and the defendant appealed to the Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant raised four issues:

  1. whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the convictions,
  2. whether the trial court should have awarded a new trial based on the weight of the evidence,
  3. whether the court abused its discretion in allowing one of the police officers to testify as an expert witness that the fact that there were two guns in the car meant that one probably belonged to the defendant, and
  4. that the sentence was illegal because the court ordered a restitution payment in a case with no victim.

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court only addressed the first issue because it resolved the case in the defendant's favor. The court noted that sufficiency of the evidence claims involve viewing all of the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict winner and determining whether there is sufficient evidence to enable the fact-finder to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, a conviction may be sustained entirely based on circumstantial evidence, but a jury is not permitted to simply guess. 

Here, the jury convicted Parrish of both gun charges and drug charges. Both types of charges required the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Parrish possessed the illegal items. Because the items were not physically on him, the prosecution’s case depended on a constructive possession theory. Possession can be found by proving actual possession, constructive possession, or joint constructive possession. Constructive possession exists when the defendant has the power to control the contraband and the intent to exercise that control. It may be proven by circumstantial evidence. At the same time, the defendant’s mere presence at the place where contraband is found or secreted is insufficient, standing alone, to prove that he exercised dominion or control over the items. Location and proximity to contraband alone are thus not conclusive of guilt. Instead, the Commonwealth must be able to prove at least that a defendant knew of the existence and location of the contraband.

Here, the court reversed the conviction because the defendant was sitting in the back of the car and all of the guns and drugs were in the front. Further, the evidence established that Parrish was not carrying any type of bag when he entered the car, he did not have the keys to the car, and he was not the owner or operator of it. There was no evidence that he had ever been seated in either of the car’s front seats. Neither of the recovered firearms was registered to him, and the police had failed to test any of the items for fingerprints or DNA. The Commonwealth also failed to present any evidence whatsoever that the defendant knew of the contents of the black bag in the front because the bag was opaque. The court also rejected the idea that the defendant could have moved from the front of the vehicle to the back due to his height and weight and the size of the vehicle. The court also ignored the testimony of the Commonwealth’s expert witness, which was likely improper, and it ultimately reversed the defendant’s conviction.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

 Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Constructive possession is an issue that often comes up in gun cases and drug cases. In many cases involving traffic stops, the contraband in the vehicle is not actually physically on the defendant. In these types of cases, there are often defenses based on constructive possession because the prosecution may not be able to prove who in the car, if anyone, possessed the prohibited items. Even where the drugs or guns are in the actual possession of the defendant, there may be constitutional defenses to the search and seizure of the vehicle and its occupants. If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation for contraband recovered during a car stop, we can help. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer today.