Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Chelsea Car Passenger’s Drug Conviction

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the drug conviction of a man who was a passenger in a car that contained a bag of PCP.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cullity

After waiving his right to a jury trial, the defendant was convicted by a district court judge of possession of a class B substance (PCP).  The Appeals Court reversed, holding that the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain the conviction.  The Commonwealth then appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

A Massachusetts state trooper was on patrol in Chelsea in 2010 when he saw a car being driven with a broken headlight.  The trooper stopped the car and approached the driver’s side window.  He detected a strong odor of a freshly burned substance and observed the defendant sitting in the front passenger seat.  The defendant was not wearing his seatbelt, he had watery and bloodshot eyes, and he appeared to be lethargic.  The trooper asked for the driver’s license, which she provided.  He also asked for the defendant’s identification, and it took three requests before the defendant complied.

The trooper checked the licenses with dispatch and learned that they were both suspended.  Therefore, the trooper ordered the driver to get out of the car.  In doing so, she almost fell down.  The trooper arrested her and secured her in the cruiser.  He then ordered the defendant to exit the vehicle.  He also saw a handmade cigarette sitting on the driver’s seat.  After both occupants got out of the car, the trooper searched it and found several items related to drug use, including hypodermic needles, a spoon containing burned residue, and cotton swabs.  He also found, between the driver’s seat and the front passenger’s seat, a bag containing PCP.  The defendant was arrested and transported to the state police barracks, where he admitted that he had used PCP earlier in the evening.

An occupant of a car cannot be convicted of possessing contraband in the car simply by being present.  There needs to be a link between the defendant and the contraband to establish that the defendant possessed it – possession is defined as knowledge coupled with the intention to exercise dominion and control.  In this case, therefore, the judge needed to have found beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew about the bag of PCP and intended to control it.

The Supreme Judicial Court reasoned that the evidence established that the defendant was more than merely present in the same car as illegal drugs.  The Court noted that the defendant admitted he had used PCP on the night he was arrested and the items found in the car (the needle, cotton swabs, and spoon) strongly suggested that drugs had been recently ingested.  Furthermore, the trooper made observations of the defendant that suggested he was under the influence of PCP during the trooper’s stop and search of the car.  The Court found that the trial judge had ample evidence to conclude that the defendant intended to use the bag of PCP that was found between his seat and the driver’s seat.

While the defendant did not prevail here, cases involving passengers of cars allegedly possessing contraband are usually very defensible.  If you are charged with possessing drugs, a gun, stolen property, or any other type of contraband because you happened to be nearby, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney to explore your options.