Officer Miller performed a traffic stop of a red sedan after he observed it fail to use a turn signal at two consecutive intersections. While following the sedan, he observed two occupants, a driver and a passenger. As the sedan slowed to pull over, the passenger appeared to bend forward slightly. During the course of the stop, he suspected the driver, James, might be under the influence of drugs. Officer Miller asked James to step out of the car, and told him that he believed James was under the influence of marijuana. James denied that he had used marijuana. Officer Miller asked for consent to search James’ car, and James agreed.
Officer Miller then asked the passenger, Mary Jane, to step out of the vehicle. Mary Jane did not appear to be under the influence of marijuana according to Officer Miller. Officer Miller secured both James and Mary Jane, while his partner, Officer Blunt, began the search of the sedan. Officer Blunt looked under the front passenger seat of the sedan and found a small bag of marijuana. His report indicates that he believed the bag contained more than 35 grams of marijuana.
Both James and Mary Jane told the officers that the marijuana did not belong to them. Unable to determine ownership of the drugs, Officer Miller placed both James and Mary Jane under arrest.
What is the appropriate charge in this case? What are the penalties associated with the charge? What must the State prove in order to obtain a conviction?
The first place to look in approaching this issue is the statutes. Currently, marijuana is a controlled substance in Missouri, and controlled substances are regulated under Chapter 195 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. § 195.202 governs possession of a controlled substance. It indicates that if the amount of marijuana possessed exceeds 35 grams, the conduct constitutes a class C felony (incarceration not to exceed 7 years). If the amount of marijuana possessed is 35 grams or less, the conduct is punished as a class A misdemeanor (up to one year incarceration in jail, and up to $1,000 fine). Which charge is appropriate will require weighing the marijuana seized from the sedan.
The statute is unhelpful in determining the facts the State must prove in order to obtain a conviction. This is a good example of where the jury instructions will be particularly useful in moving forward with research. MAI-CR 3d 325.02.1 and 325.02.2 govern possession of marijuana. These instructions indicate that the State must prove possession, and it must prove knowledge of the marijuana’s presence and nature. Thus, it is not enough to simply possess it. If the defendant is not aware of its nature as a controlled substance (that is to say, lack of awareness that it is marijuana) the possession will not support a conviction.
The jury instructions provide some assistance in that they also define the concept of “possession.” They state that possession may be actual or constructive, and they define those terms as well. They also indicate that those terms are defined by statute. During the course of researching this problem, it may be useful to consult those statutes and perhaps see how case law has treated those terms.
What the jury instructions do not explain, however, is how the marijuana’s presence in a vehicle influences the analysis. At this point, one could either immediately begin researching case law, or one could consult a secondary source like the Criminal Law - Missouri Practice Series. § 40.4 of the Criminal Law – Missouri Practice Series indicates that when multiple people have control of the area where drugs are found, the State must submit additional evidence connected the defendant to the drugs. That same section also provides a number of citations to cases exploring what that “additional evidence” might be.
At this point, the researcher should begin looking at case law in order to refine their understanding of the law as it applies to the traffic stop and the marijuana. The secondary source that was examined is not an exhaustive resource of all of the relevant law. This would be a good time to begin looking for cases with analogous fact patterns in order to determine what was viewed as additional evidence in those cases, and whether such additional evidence exists here.
This case represents an example of how an innocuous fact (the two defendants were together in a car) can have a huge impact on the burden of the State to prove its case.