The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that the Commonwealth had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that two Taunton men were criminally liable for the loaded guns found in the attic of their apartment. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dagraca-Teixeira.
The defendants were convicted of unlawfully possessing two handguns and ammunition. Taunton police officers executed a search warrant at their apartment in November of 2011. The defendants were each searched and one of the men had a key in his pocket that opened the door to one of the apartment’s bedrooms. In that bedroom was heroin and paperwork belonging to the defendant. In another bedroom was more heroin and paperwork belonging to the second defendant. There was also a third bedroom in the apartment. Both defendants were convicted of possession of heroin, and the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the evidence was sufficient to support those convictions.
After searching the interior of the apartment, the police then explored the apartment building’s attic. The attic was accessible through a hatch door that was located in the ceiling of a common hallway. One of the officers pushed in the door and was lifted into the attic by other officers. Once inside, the officer noticed a plastic shopping bag wedged between the insulation and the ceiling joists. He looked inside the bag and discovered two loaded handguns. There was no testimony that the officer found anything else inside of the attic.
The Commonwealth prosecuted the defendants under a theory of constructive possession of the guns. A defendant constructively possesses any item that he or she: (1) knows about; and (2) has the ability and intention to control. For example, we all constructively possess all of the items in the nightstands next to our beds even when we aren’t at home because we presumably know what’s in our nightstands and have the intention to control those items. In this case, the Court found that the jury correctly concluded that the defendants constructively possessed the heroin in their bedrooms, even if they weren’t in the bedrooms at the time the police arrived to execute the search warrant.
With respect to the guns found in the attic, the Supreme Judicial Court said that the jury reasonably inferred the defendants had the ability to control the guns, as the defendants had access to the attic. However, the Court ruled that the Commonwealth had failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants knew about the existence of the guns in the attic. The Court said that the only evidence against the defendants was that the attic was located above their bedrooms, and nothing suggested that the attic was accessible directly through the bedrooms. With no other evidence establishing a connection between the defendants and any of the contents in the attic, including the guns, it was improper for the jury to have convicted the defendants of possessing them.
Anytime a gun or other contraband is discovered in a common area of a home or apartment (such as an attic, basement, or garage), or inside of a car with multiple occupants, the Commonwealth often has trouble connecting the contraband to one particular person. Mere presence in the general location of contraband is not enough to sustain a conviction. This case illustrates the importance of never making a statement to the police without first meeting with a criminal defense attorney. In this case, it looks like neither defendant discussed the guns with the police. If they had expressed any knowledge about the guns, there would have been sufficient evidence for the Supreme Judicial Court to have upheld their firearms convictions.