Criminal Law Blog

You don't constructively possess a firearm just because you're found trying to dispose of drugs in the same room in which the gun is found.


James M. Schools v. United StatesNo. 12-CF-1448
(decided December 19, 2013)
Players:  Judges Thompson, Wagner, and Schwelb.  Opinion by Judge Thompson.  Dissenting opinion by Judge Wagner.  Jamison Koehler for appellant.  Trial Judge:  Stuart Nash.
Facts: Police officers executed a warrant at the residence of appellant.  When they arrived, they found appellant in the back bedroom of the house trying to hide a white shoe that was found to contain 53 baggies of crack cocaine.  Officers also found a digital scale in the room.  In addition to appellant, two other men—appellant’s nephew and a friend of his—were found in the residence just outside of the same bedroom, and they were also detained.  After detaining the men, officers grabbed some clothes that were sitting on a chair in the room and gave them to appellant, who put them on without protest (this kind of matters).  The officers then searched the room and found a gun and some ammunition under some clothing in one of the dresser drawers.  Appellant was acquitted on the narcotics related charges, and convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of an unregistered firearm, and unlawful possession of ammunition.  A defense witness testified that two other men shared the room where the firearm was, while appellant usually slept on the couch. 
Issue: Whether the evidence was sufficient to show that appellant constructively possessed a gun that was found in a dresser when (a) he was found in a room handling 53 baggies of crack cocaine in the room with the dresser and (b) some of his clothing was in that room, but (c) there was no evidence that his clothing was in the dresser, and (d) there was evidence that another individual stayed in that room. 
Holding:  The evidence was insufficient to convict appellant of constructive possession of the firearm.  The jury would have had to rely on pure speculation to determine whether the gun belonged to appellant or one of the other men who had access to the room.  The jury had no evidence before it to point to appellant as the person who possessed the gun.  Importantly, the government did not put on any evidence to show that the clothing in the dresser belonged to Appellant (who was obese) or one of the other men (who were much smaller).  Absent that, the mere link between guns and drugs was not sufficient evidence to conclude that appellant—because he was found with 53 baggies of crack cocaine on him—exercised control over the gun in the dresser.
Dissent:  Judge Wagner thought the evidence was sufficient to convict appellant of possession of the gun.  She noted that the jury simply might not have credited the defense witness who indicated that appellant shared his room with his nephew. Judge Wagner also stressed the link between guns and drugs as being strong enough to supply the inference linking the gun to appellant, since he was found holding a shoe full of narcotics.

Of note: The jury acquitted appellant of narcotics charges and the Court begins its opinion by detailing the evidence on those charges and noting that there was certainly sufficient evidence to convict him of those charges, even though that was not an issue in the case. The Court also stated that appellant’s acquittal of the narcotics charges did “not show [the jurors] were not convinced of his guilt” of those charges, and oddly cites to Mayfield—an inconsistent verdicts case—for that proposition.  The Court basically leaves unexplained why an acquittal on a charge does not show the jurors were unconvinced of appellant’s guilt of that charge even when there is no inconsistent verdict undermining that assumption.