Murfreesboro drug defense attorney

How Can the State Charge Two People for Possession of the Same Drugs?

Murfreesboro drug defense attorney

Were you recently charged with possession of a controlled substance? Was someone else charged with possession of the same drugs? If so, you are probably wondering how that can possibly happen. How can you both be in possession of the same thing at the same time? To help answer that question, a Murfreesboro drug defense attorney from Bennett, Michael & Hornsby explains how the State can charge two people with possession of the same drugs using the concept of constructive possession.

The Elements of a Criminal Offense

The elements of a criminal offense are what the State must prove to secure a conviction. Many criminal statutes include “possession” as an element of the crime. This is particularly true with drug-related criminal offenses. Take, for example, Tennessee Code § 39-17-417 (2015) which governs the possession of a controlled substance. That statute reads as follows:

(a) It is an offense for a defendant to knowingly:

(1) Manufacture a controlled substance;

(2) Deliver a controlled substance;

(3) Sell a controlled substance; or

(4) Possess a controlled substance with intent to manufacture, deliver or sell the controlled substance.

Given those elements, to convict a defendant of “possession with intent”  as found in TN Code § 39-17-417 (a)(4), the prosecuting attorney would need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant:

  1. Knowingly
  2. Possessed
  3. A controlled substance
  4. With intent to manufacture, deliver, or sell the controlled substance

At first glance you might think that the first element – knowingly – would be the most difficult to prove; however, that is not always the case. Often, it is the element of “possession” that presents a problem for the State, meaning it can also be the basis of a defendant’s defense.

Defining Possession

In everyday language, the concept of “possession” isn’t particularly complicated. In legal terms, however, the concept of possession has been heavily litigated for decades. Originally, the law used the traditional definition of the word “possession” when possession was an element of a crime. That required the State to prove that a defendant had “immediate and direct physical control over the contraband” to obtain a conviction. Consequently, the State could only convict someone of possession of a controlled substance if the controlled substance was found on the defendant’s person. As you might well imagine, defense attorneys routinely argued that any contraband not found directly on a defendant’s person was not in the defendant’s possession. That argument often meant that the defendant could not be convicted of the crime because the State failed to prove one of the elements of the crime.

The Evolution of Constructive Possession

Knowing that they had to find a way around the “possession” problem, prosecuting attorneys began to argue that “possession” could also be “constructive.” Although constructive possession is easy enough to explain, it has been difficult for the law to define. The Supreme Court of the United States has even said: “there is no word more ambiguous in its meaning than possession” (National Safe Deposit Co. v. Stead, 232 U.S. 58, 34 S. Ct. 209, 58 L. Ed. 504 [1914]). In practical terms, constructive possession occurs when it is clear to all that an item belongs to someone; however, that person does not have the item on his/her person. The most widely accepted legal definition of “constructive possession” requires the State to prove that the defendant had “knowledge of the item in question and that the defendant had the intent to maintain dominion and control over the item.”

Using the concept of constructive possession, the State can charge more than one person for “possessing” drugs and let the defendants try and prove that the contraband isn’t theirs. For example, imagine that a law enforcement officer conducts a traffic stop of a vehicle that has four occupants. A subsequent search of the vehicle turns up a baggie of heroin under one of the seats. The officer could arrest all four occupants and they could ultimately all be charged with possession of the heroin using a constructive possession argument.

Contact a Murfreesboro Drug Defense Attorney

If you have been charged with possession of drugs in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Murfreesboro drug defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.

Dinah Michael