The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a defendant’s convictions for drug trafficking and illegal possession of a gun after the police caught him in the midst of a home invasion in his neighbor’s apartment. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Woods.
On December 23, 2014, police officers traveled to an apartment building located at 190 Blossom Street in Fitchburg to arrest an alleged fugitive. When the cops entered the building, they heard a banging noise followed by a woman’s screams coming from the third-floor apartment. They entered the apartment (through a front door that appeared to have been kicked in) and found the frightened tenant, who said she had been sleeping in her bedroom when she was woken up by a crash. The tenant then saw a man, later identified as the defendant, standing in the doorway to her bedroom and motioning her to be quiet. When the tenant continued to scream, the defendant walked into the living room where he encountered the police officers who had entered the apartment. The defendant began fighting with the officers and it took several cops to subdue him and place him in handcuffs. The defendant had more than $2,000 in cash and a homemade weapon in his clothes. The defendant’s three cell phones were on the living room floor. Once the defendant was in custody, the police looked inside the living room closet and saw, among other objects, a child’s kickball which had been slit open. There was a loaded gun along with baggies of cocaine and heroin hidden in the ball. The defendant denied ownership of the contraband, but the tenant told the police the ball did not belong to her and had not been in the closet the night before. The police later learned the defendant lived in the second-floor apartment. When they executed a search warrant they found tools used by drug dealers to distribute narcotics and an empty holster that would hold the gun found in the third-floor apartment. The defendant was indicted and convicted of several crimes, including armed home invasion, drug trafficking, and illegally possessing a loaded gun.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the Commonwealth had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he had possessed the drugs and the gun found in the kickball in his neighbor’s closet. Because the contraband was not located in the defendant’s clothes or on his person, the Commonwealth needed to have proven he constructively possessed the objects. Constructive possession is proven when a defendant knows about an object and has the ability and intention to control and exercise dominion over the object. Simply being present in the same area as an object is insufficient to prove constructive possession. The Appeals Court concluded the Commonwealth had proven the defendant constructively possessed the drugs and the gun. It seemed clear the defendant was attempting to hide in his neighbor’s apartment immediately before he was confronted by the police. The third-floor tenant did not have any children while the defendant and his girlfriend (who lived with him on the second floor) each had a child. Further, the gun discovered in the third-floor apartment fit into the holster found in the defendant’s apartment.
While the Appeals Court reversed a couple of the defendant’s less-serious convictions, he will continue to serve a 5-6 year state prison sentence for the drug and gun crimes.