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EX PARTE C.A.P. (IN RE: C.A.P. v. State of Alabama)
WRIT QUASHED. NO OPINION.
The Jefferson Juvenile Court, Bessemer Division, adjudicated C.A.P. (“the Defendant”) delinquent on the ground that he unlawfully possessed a pistol as a minor. See § 13A-11-72(b), Ala. Code 1975. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgment, C.A.P. v. State (No. CR-19-0441, June 26, 2020), 329 So. 3d 119 (Ala. Crim. App. 2020) (table), and this Court granted certiorari review. The Court now quashes the writ. I dissent because the evidence was insufficient to prove that the Defendant constructively possessed the pistol.
The Defendant was riding in the front passenger seat of a small car when the car nearly collided with a police officer's vehicle. The officer pursued the car, and after a short chase, the driver stopped the car. The driver started to jump out of the car as if to run, but he ultimately complied with the officer's command to stay in the car. The officer removed all three of the car's occupants (the third was in the backseat) and placed them in handcuffs. According to the officer, the Defendant “was jittery and appeared to be nervous.” The officer then saw an “AR-style” pistol on the backseat floorboard behind the driver's seat. The pistol had been within the Defendant's reach, but the Defendant had not moved toward it.
The Defendant was adjudicated delinquent on the basis that he constructively possessed the pistol. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed by a vote of three to two, holding that, “given the type of weapon at issue, its proximity to [the Defendant], and his nervous behavior [following his removal from the car],” the evidence was sufficient to establish constructive possession.
The Defendant petitioned this Court for certiorari review, alleging that the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision conflicted with prior decisions regarding sufficiency of the evidence to prove constructive possession of contraband. We granted review, but a slim majority now perceives no conflict with precedent, or no reason to issue a decision on the merits. I disagree.
The test for sufficiency of the evidence in criminal proceedings applies equally to delinquency proceedings: whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, a rational fact-finder could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. C.L.F. v. State, 104 So. 3d 291 (Ala. Crim. App. 2012); see § 12-15-212(a), Ala. Code 1975 (a child may be adjudicated delinquent “[i]f the juvenile court finds on proof beyond a reasonable doubt ․ that the child committed the acts by reason of which the child is alleged to be delinquent”); In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 368, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970) (holding that “the constitutional safeguard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt” applies to juvenile cases). The elements of constructive possession of an object are (1) actual or potential physical control, (2) intent to exercise dominion (control), and (3) external manifestations of control and intent. See Ex parte Fitkin, 781 So. 2d 182, 184 (Ala. 2000). The State must also prove the defendant's knowledge of the presence of the object. Ex parte D.B., 678 So. 2d 255, 257 (Ala. 1996).1
Here, there was a complete lack of evidence that the Defendant intended to control the pistol. The Court of Criminal Appeals pointed to “the type of weapon at issue, its proximity to [the Defendant], and his nervous behavior.” Under the circumstances, none of those facts is evidence of intent to control. The nature of the weapon had no logical bearing on the Defendant's intent. Nor was intent established by the Defendant's nervousness upon being detained. In Ex parte Tiller, 796 So. 2d 310 (Ala. 2001), we held that an adult defendant's running away from a vehicle, after a high-speed chase during which drugs had been discarded from the vehicle, was insufficient to establish the defendant's constructive possession of the drugs. Surely, then, a teenage passenger's jittery behavior -- after the car had almost crashed into a police vehicle, a chase had ensued, and the driver had almost fled but had been ordered back in the car -- is also insufficient.
The only other cited evidence was the pistol's proximity to the Defendant. But under the circumstances here, proximity alone could not establish intent to control. See Tiller, 796 So. 2d at 313 (“ ‘ “ ‘The kinds of evidence which might be relevant, but which by themselves do not add the necessary connection[, include]: ․ evidence that showed the defendant's physical proximity to the contraband.’ ” ’ ” (quoting Posey v. State, 736 So. 2d 656, 659 (Ala. Crim. App. 1997), quoting in turn other authorities)); Smith v. State, 457 So. 2d 997, 999 (Ala. Crim. App. 1984) (“[P]hysical proximity to the contraband ․ alone does not ‘add the necessary connection’ between [the defendant] and the contraband ․” (quoting Temple v. State, 366 So. 2d 740, 743 (Ala. Crim. App. 1978))); Perry v. State, 534 So. 2d 1126, 1128 (Ala. Crim. App. 1988) (“[T]he close proximity of a defendant to an illegal substance ․ alone is insufficient ․ to support a finding of constructive possession.”); Flake v. State, 980 So. 2d 440, 443 (Ala. Crim. App. 2007) (“ ‘[P]roximity to a contraband alone is not enough to establish constructive possession ․’ ” (quoting Mobley v. State, 563 So. 2d 29, 32 (Ala. Crim. App. 1990))). In particular, the ability of a passenger in a multi-occupant small car to reach an object not located in his immediate vicinity, or what in common parlance might be called his “personal space,” has no tendency to show that the passenger intended to possess the object. Moreover, it is not enough to say that an object can be jointly possessed. Regardless of whether the other occupants intended to control the object, the State must prove that the defendant intended to control it.
The law of constructive possession was applied to similar facts by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Bailey, 553 F.3d 940 (6th Cir. 2009). There, the defendant borrowed a car from a friend, used it to drop off another friend at that friend's home, and then was driving the defendant's girlfriend to drop her off at her home. Police officers identified the car as stolen and attempted to stop the defendant. He refused to stop and attempted to flee, but he was eventually apprehended. Police officers found two bags of cocaine in his pockets, and they also found a .357 Magnum pistol under the driver's seat. Id. at 945-46; United States v. Bailey, 510 F.3d 562, 564, 567 (6th Cir. 2007) (prior panel opinion in same case, other parts of which were vacated by panel's 2009 opinion).
In a thorough analysis, the Sixth Circuit held that the evidence was insufficient to prove the defendant's constructive possession of the gun. 553 F.3d at 944-49. The court emphasized that constructive possession requires intent to control the object. Id. at 944-45. And, like this Court, the Sixth Circuit recognized that proximity alone is not enough. The court found instructive a clarification from another circuit: “[I]n addition to knowledge and proximity, ‘[t]here must be some action, some word, or some conduct that links the individual to the [contraband] and indicates that he had some stake in [it], some power over [it].’ ” Id. at 945 (quoting United States v. Clark, 184 F.3d 858, 863 (D.C. Cir. 1999), quoting in turn United States v. Pardo, 636 F.2d 535, 549 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). The Sixth Circuit confirmed that “some amount of additional evidence beyond proximity is required.” Id. at 947. Specifically, the court observed, “ ‘the defendant's mere presence in a car where a gun is found and proximity to [the] gun are insufficient proof of constructive possession.’ ” Id. at 947-48 (quoting United States v. Newsom, 452 F.3d 593, 609 (6th Cir. 2006)). The court noted that the defendant's flight from police was not additional evidence because it might well have been prompted by the cocaine in his pockets. Further, the defendant did not own the car, and other people had been in it or had access to it that night. Id. at 946 & n.5. The court concluded that “[t]he fact pattern in this case falls within the category of cases ․ in which ‘the sole connection between the defendant and the gun was the gun's proximity to the defendant.’ ” Id. at 947 (quoting United States v. Arnold, 486 F.3d 177, 183 (6th Cir. 2007)).
In sum, what we have here is a minor passenger in the front seat of a car, in which two other people were riding and in which there was a visible pistol of unknown origin lying on the backseat floorboard. The evidence did not support intent by the Defendant to control the pistol. Rather, this is a classic case of guilt by association: the Defendant was found guilty because he was there. See United States v. Ferg, 504 F.2d 914, 917 (5th Cir. 1974) (holding no constructive possession when only evidence was passenger's presence in vehicle; rejecting “the government's apparent invitation to infer guilt by association”). That unsupported conclusion violated the Defendant's due-process right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every element of the offense with which he was charged. Therefore, the Defendant's adjudication ought to be reversed.
C.A.P. petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari to review an unpublished decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals affirming C.A.P.'s adjudication as a delinquent based on his violation of § 13A-11-72(b), Ala. Code 1975 (“No person who is a minor ․ shall own a pistol or have one in his or her possession or under his or her control.”). See C.A.P. v. State (No. CR-19-0441, June 26, 2020), 329 So. 3d 719 (Ala. Crim. App. 2020) (table). This Court granted C.A.P.'s petition for certiorari review and issued the writ but, now, without opinion, quashes the writ. Having agreed to grant the writ, I respectfully dissent.
The evidence in the case reveals that on October 21, 2019, a Jefferson County sheriff's deputy was responding to a call when a vehicle matching the description he had been given almost hit his patrol car head on. Following a brief pursuit, the vehicle stopped. The deputy testified that the driver appeared as if he was going to jump out of the vehicle and run. The deputy ordered the driver to remain in the vehicle; thereafter, the deputy approached the vehicle, removed the driver, handcuffed him, and walked him to the back of the patrol car. The deputy then removed C.A.P. and the backseat passenger from the vehicle, handcuffed them, and waited with all the occupants until backup arrived. When the deputy returned to the vehicle, he looked into the rear passenger window where he saw “plain as day” an AR-style firearm (“the pistol”) lying on the backseat floorboard behind the driver's seat. The deputy, as well as two other deputies who were present at the scene, testified that, even though the pistol was behind the driver's seat, it was easily accessible from the front passenger's seat where C.A.P. had been sitting. The deputy further testified that C.A.P., who was 17 years old, was the only occupant in the vehicle with identification and that he appeared “nervous” and “jittery.” Finally, the deputy stated that the vehicle was registered to M.P., but he provided no evidence as to M.P.'s identity or relationship with C.A.P. At the close of all the evidence, C.A.P. moved for a judgment of acquittal, which the juvenile court denied; the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the juvenile court's judgment adjudicating C.A.P. delinquent. As indicated, this Court granted C.A.P.'s petition for certiorari review and issued the writ but, now, quashes the writ.
Standard of Review
In reviewing the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision on a petition for a writ of certiorari, this Court applies de novo the standard of review applicable in the Court of Criminal Appeals. Ex parte Cunningham, 332 So. 3d 929 (Ala. 2020).
The evidence at trial established that C.A.P. was one of three occupants in a vehicle containing the pistol. It is undisputed that C.A.P. was not in exclusive possession of the pistol; thus, the State relied on a theory of constructive possession. Under this theory, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had knowledge of the presence of the contraband -- in this case, the pistol. Nguyen v. State, 580 So. 2d 122 (Ala. Crim. App. 1991). The Court of Criminal Appeals has explained:
“In Alabama, there is no statutory presumption that the presence of a forbidden weapon in an automobile is presumptive evidence of its possession by all occupants of the vehicle. See Annot., 87 A.L.R.3d 949 (1978). Instead, the principles enunciated in Ex parte Story, 435 So. 2d 1365 (Ala. 1983), which involved a prosecution for the possession of a controlled substance found in an automobile, govern this case:
“ ‘[T]he mere presence of a defendant in an automobile containing contraband is not sufficient in and of itself to support a conviction for possession of a controlled substance. Parks v. State, 46 Ala. App. 722, 248 So. 2d 761 (1971); Rueffert v. State, 46 Ala. App. 36, 237 So. 2d 520 (1970). The State must introduce additional evidence from which the defendant's unlawful possession of the contraband could be inferred in order to support a conviction. See 57 A.L.R.3d 1319. Knowledge of the presence of the controlled substance by the defendant must also be established beyond a reasonable doubt. Temple v. State, 366 So. 2d 740 (Ala. Cr. App. 1978).’ ”
Nguyen, 580 So. 2d at 123.
After considering the evidence, I cannot conclude that the State presented sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that C.A.P. had knowledge of the presence of the pistol located in the vehicle. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the circumstantial evidence regarding the type of weapon at issue, its proximity to C.A.P., and C.A.P.'s nervous behavior was sufficient to establish both C.A.P.'s knowledge and constructive possession of the pistol. First, I disagree that the “type” of contraband involved in a case has any relevance regarding whether a defendant has knowledge of or is in constructive possession of that contraband. Next, although establishing the close proximity of a defendant to contraband is relevant to show his or her knowledge of its presence, proximity alone is insufficient to prove the required knowledge necessary to support a finding of constructive possession. Temple v. State, 366 So. 2d 740 (Ala. Crim. App. 1978). Rather, the State is required to show additional facts and circumstances that connect the defendant with the contraband. Id. See, e.g., Cason v. State, 435 So. 2d 200 (Ala. Crim. App. 1983) (holding that defendant's close proximity to contraband, coupled with his recent offer to sell marijuana, was sufficient to warrant a finding of constructive possession). I cannot conclude that C.A.P.'s proximity to the pistol, coupled with the fact that he appeared nervous, warranted a finding of constructive possession of the pistol. It is reasonable to presume that any 17-year-old would appear nervous, especially where, as here, the 17-year-old was in a vehicle in which the driver almost had a head-on collision with a patrol car, the driver led the police on a brief chase, and, once pulled over, the driver appeared as though he was going to run. Reviewing all the evidence in a light most favorable to the State, I can find nothing connecting C.A.P. to the pistol, i.e., there was no evidence indicating that C.A.P. had any connection to the vehicle, there were no statements from any of the occupants of the vehicle regarding ownership of the pistol, there was no physical evidence such as fingerprints introduced, C.A.P. had no history of illegal firearm possession, and there was no evidence that C.A.P. looked at the pistol or reached for it. The only inference to be drawn from the State's evidence is that it is possible that C.A.P. committed the offense; however, a conviction cannot be premised on that basis alone. Given all the facts and circumstances surrounding C.A.P.'s detention, to surmise that his nervous behavior was exclusively connected to his knowledge that the pistol was in the backseat of the vehicle and that he was afraid of its discovery is far-fetched, and it is an improper basis from which to infer C.A.P.'s possession of the pistol.
For the reasons stated above, I conclude that the State failed to offer sufficient evidence that C.A.P. constructively possessed the pistol. Accordingly, I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
1. In substance, the requirements of constructive possession might be simpler than the Fitkin/D.B. formulation. Boiled down, constructive possession could perhaps be thought of as requiring only (1) ability to control and (2) intent to control. See Henderson v. United States, 575 U.S. 622, 626, 135 S.Ct. 1780, 191 L.Ed.2d 874 (2015) (“Constructive possession is established when a person, though lacking ․ physical custody, still has the power and intent to exercise control over the object.” (emphasis added)). Within the elements as currently conceptualized, “actual” physical control might not be a necessary part of the formulation; typically, actual physical control is used to prove actual possession rather than constructive possession. Moreover, “dominion” is apparently used as a synonym of “control,” and is perhaps less precise. Further, external manifestations of control and intent appear to be significant primarily because they are the ordinary means of proving the elements of ability to control and intent to control; external manifestations might not actually function as a separate conceptual requirement. For example, ability to control normally has to be shown from externally observable circumstances. Similarly, intent to control is ordinarily proved by external manifestations: either by the defendant's admission of intent or by circumstantial evidence. Finally, perhaps the “knowledge” requirement could best be thought of as a component of intent to control, rather than as an additional mental state. Typically, for a person to intend to control a present object, the person must have knowledge of the object's presence.
Bolin, Shaw, Bryan, and Mendheim, JJ., concur Parker, C.J., and Sellers, Stewart, and Mitchell, JJ., dissent.
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Docket No: 1190930
Decided: April 09, 2021
Court: Supreme Court of Alabama.
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