Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Taunton Gun Conviction on Shakiest of Evidence

In a sharply divided opinion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the conviction of a Taunton man who was convicted of carrying a gun without a license.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Summers.

On August 3, 2015, a Taunton police officer stopper a Kia Spectra after it ran through a red light.  In the front seat was a woman (the driver) and a man, and in the back seat was the defendant (who the police officer knew from prior dealings).  The defendant’s cell phone was sitting on the seat next to him.  The cop exchanged pleasantries with the defendant and obtained identification documents from the driver and the front-seat passenger.  While the officer was checking the IDs of the front-seat occupants on his cruiser laptop, the defendant got out of the car and approached the officer, saying his son was hurt and he needed to leave the scene.  The officer allowed him to leave and the defendant began walking away.  Meanwhile, the officer had learned the front-seat passenger had a warrant for his arrest.  Upon realizing the defendant was leaving, the front-seat passenger began to yell and gesture toward the back seat, where a backpack containing a gun was eventually found by the police.  The defendant then ran away and the officer was unable to catch up to him.  In the midst of the chaos, the front-seat passenger also fled the scene.  A warrant issued for the defendant’s arrest and the police caught up with him a month later and charged him with unlawfully carrying a firearm.  As he was being arrested, the defendant said he didn’t understand why he was being arrested for carrying the gun since the front-seat passenger also had a criminal record and also ran away.  The defendant was convicted by a district court judge in a jury-waived trial and he appealed.  In a 4-3 opinion, the Appeals Court affirmed the conviction.

The defendant argued on appeal that the evidence against him was not sufficient as a matter of law to warrant his conviction.  In order to prove the defendant guilty of unlawfully carrying the gun, the prosecutor needed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew the gun was present and had the ability and intention to exercise control over the weapon (while not being properly licensed).  All of the Appeals Court justices agreed there was enough evidence to conclude the defendant knew the gun was in the backpack next to him in the back seat.  The question was whether the evidence established the defendant intended to exercise control over the gun.  The majority acknowledged the defendant’s presence in the vehicle without any other evidence was insufficient to support a conviction.  The majority concluded, however, that there were additional factors that permitted the inference that the defendant intended to exercise control over the gun.  The Court noted that the defendant was the only occupant in the back of the car, where the backpack containing the gun was located, and he would have easily been able to grab the backpack from his seat.  Further, the Court concluded the defendant had engaged in a ruse involving a story about his allegedly-injured son, to escape from the crime scene.  The evidence, according to the majority opinion, was sufficient to convict the defendant of carrying the gun.

Three justices dissented.  They agreed the evidence was sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew about the gun, but the evidence was insufficient to prove he intended to exercise dominion and control over it.  The dissent pointed out there was no connection between the defendant and the car (other than he was a passenger) and there was also no evidence the defendant owned the backpack.