Drugs found in jeans in the backseat of a car did not support conviction

Alleged drug crimes are aggressively prosecuted in many parts of Minnesota, and this may mean, at times, that individuals are charged on the basis of circumstantial or insufficient evidence, which could lead to a successful reversal of a defendant's conviction.

The recent Minnesota Court of Appeals case, State v. Elling, provides an example.

Did the drugs belong to the defendant?

Law enforcement officials arrived at a gas station for a controlled buy, targeting a suspect who was a passenger in the car. The defendant was the driver of the car, and the police had no prior information that the defendant would be involved in the controlled buy or would be driving the car.

When police officers approached the vehicle to arrest the occupants, the defendant cooperated with the officers and had no drugs on him. The suspect did not cooperate; when he was removed from the vehicle, officers discovered a broken baggy with methamphetamine near where he had been sitting and white powder spread over the passenger's seat. When searching the car, the police also found a pair of jeans in the backseat, behind the driver's seat, containing what was later determined to be methamphetamine.

The defendant was convicted on a fifth-degree possession charge based on the methamphetamine found in the jeans in the backseat of the car. On appeal, the defendant asserted that the evidence presented to the jury supported a rational hypothesis that someone else owned the jeans.

If the jeans do not fit, must you acquit?

To convict the defendant of fifth-degree possession where he did not physically possess the drugs, the state had to prove "constructive" possession by showing: (1) the police found the property in a place under the defendant's exclusive control to which other people did not normally have access; or (2) if found in a place to which others had access, there was a strong probability that the defendant was at the time consciously exercising dominion and control over it.

In this case, the defendant did not have exclusive control over the car he was driving because the car belonged to another man. The state also attempted to prove that the jeans belonged to the defendant because the jeans were approximately the same size as the pants he was wearing when he was taken into custody, but the circumstances also supported other reasonable inferences.

For example, the car belonged to another person, none of the other items in the car belonged to the defendant including a snowmobile jacket found with the jeans, and so it was equally reasonable to infer that, just as the defendant drove the other man's car, other people had also driven it. The jeans, and the drugs in them, could have belonged to someone else.

Because the circumstances proven did not lead so directly to the defendant's guilt as to exclude beyond a reasonable doubt an inference other than guilt, the Court of Appeals reversed the defendant's conviction for insufficiency of the evidence.

Does the evidence support the charge?

As this case shows, a person may be charged with a crime, even where the evidence is less than clear. It is important that your attorney reviews every aspect of your arrest to see if the evidence supports the charge, as well as to check if your constitutional rights were violated.

If you have been arrested and charged with a drug offense, you should seek an experienced defense attorney who will protect your rights and ensure the government meets its burden of proof.