The fact that a man was sitting in a car near a closed container of drugs wasn't enough to convict him of possessing those drugs, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled today.
The opinion reinforces the government's obligation to present enough evidence in drug cases to prove that a defendant wasn't simply an innocent bystander. A three-judge panel found that in the case of David Jackson, prosecutors failed to offer evidence of guilt beyond the fact that he was sitting close to a closed cooler that held bags of marijuana.
"The myriad questions left unanswered by Mr. Jackson's presence in the car and position next to the cooler containing the drugs is the reason we do not allow intent to be founded on proximity to contraband alone," Judge Catharine Easterly wrote in the unanimous decision. The court reversed Jackson's conviction and ordered the trial judge to enter a judgment of acquittal.
According to the opinion, the case began when a police officer saw a man, Jackson's co-defendant Charles Winfield, drinking beer outside. The officer called for backup to respond to the possible open container law violation, and then spotted Jackson sitting in the backseat of a running car; the officer later confirmed that the car belonged to Winfield. At the time, the officer said that Jackson wasn't doing anything illegal and was "just sitting."
A second police officer arrived and began talking to Jackson, who was described as "cooperative." Jackson stepped out of the car at the officer's request and the officer searched the car. The officer testified that he smelled unburned marijuana and then saw a small purple cooler on the floor of the backseat. Inside the cooler, which had been closed, the officer found 11 individually packaged plastic bags of marijuana.
Jackson and Winfield were placed under arrest. At trial, the government said that the amount of drugs found and how they were packaged were enough to convict Jackson of possession with intent to distribute. Jackson appealed.
In today's opinion, the court noted the three elements required to convict someone of possession: that they knew about the drugs, that they could exercise "dominion" or control over the drugs, and that they intended to do something with the drugs. Jackson conceded that he was in a position to exercise control over the drugs – he was sitting right next to them – but that the government failed to prove that he knew there were drugs in the cooler or that he had any intent to distribute them.
The appellate court found that the government presented no evidence on why Jackson was in the car, how long he had been sitting there, or what he was doing, let alone evidence that he intended to sell the drugs.
The U.S. attorney's office presented expert testimony that the drugs in the cooler were packaged for sale and that drug sales sometimes took place from cars, but the three-judge panel rejected that this was enough to convict Jackson. Under the government's theory, Easterly wrote, the government could "convert any insufficient proximity case into a legitimate conviction" simply by presenting general testimony from narcotics experts. That scenario, she added, "would contravene due process principles."
Jackson's attorney, local solo practitioner Stephen Riddell, could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, declined to comment.
Associate Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and Senior Judge Frank Nebeker also heard the case.