criminal justice

Does presence of a gun inside a vehicle mean that a passenger possessed it?

Does the presence of a gun inside a vehicle mean that a passenger possessed it? No, not without more the Sixth Circuit has ruled in United States v. Wilson (December 6, 2022).

The defendant pleaded guilty to possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute. The district court applied a two-level enhancement for possession of a firearm during the offense under section 2D1.1(b)(1) of the sentencing guidelines. This was a big mistake and was vacated by the appeals court. 

The defendant was involved in two drug-related incidents. In the first, he was identified as the driver of a car that fled and police later recovered drugs and a handgun from the car. Almost four months later, the defendant was seen exiting the backseat of a vehicle, a Ford F-150, on the driver's side. Meth and other evidence was found on his person. Police found a revolver under the front passenger seat, a handgun in the back pocket of the front passenger seat and a rifle underneath the rear passenger seat, although it was not visible "without first lifting the seat." 

The Sixth Circuit ruled that the district judge clearly erred in finding that the defendant constructively possessed any of the three firearms recovered from the Ford F-150. First, "something more than proximity is required to show constructive possession." Second, a "defendant's mere presence in a car where a gun is found and proximity to a gun are insufficient proof of constructive possession," a quote taken from an earlier Sixth Circuit decision United States v. Newsom, 452 F.3d 593, 609 (6th Cir. 2006). Third, the government "did not present evidence that the rifle was visible or that [the defendant] knew it was under the seat." Finally, there was no other incriminating evidence such as a connection with a gun, proof of motive, a gesture implying control, evasive conduct, or a statement indicating involvement in an enterprise or a statement of ownership is needed in combination with proximity to show constructive possession. 

Circuit Judge John Nalbandian dissented and went far, far out of his way to conjure up some basis to prop up the district court's clearly erroneous finding. One was that even though the district court did not find and the government did not argue in either the district court or to the Sixth Circuit, the enhancement could still be supported by the gun recovered in the first drug-related incident. The main rationale that Judge Nalbandian offered was that the defendant had some ownership interests in the vehicle. That, of course, cut against the defendant's possession of the gun the district court erroneously found and the government argued he possessed involved in the second incident. This "heads I win, tails you lose" logic cannot stand, the majority responded in a pithy footnote, "[e]ither ownership and sole occupancy of a vehicle matters for constructive possession, or it does not." 

Heads the government wins, tails the defendant loses pretty much sums up federal criminal law nowadays. Rare is the instance where it is called out and rejected. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore joined by Circuit Judge Eric Clay deserve special mention for doing so. 

Robert L. Abell

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