A key issue in many Houston-area drug crimes cases is proving the defendant actually had possession of an illegal substance. For instance, if a police officer pulls you over for a traffic violation and sees a bag of marijuana on the seat next to you, she’s going to assume those are your drugs. But what if the police search the car and find marijuana or cocaine in the glove compartment? Can you still be arrested and convicted even if you didn’t know the drugs were there?
Actual vs. Constructive Drug Possession in Texas
In Texas, prosecutors do not have to prove that you had actual possession of illegal drugs on your person. Instead they can use circumstantial evidence to show you had “constructive possession,” i.e. that you must have had knowledge there were drugs in or around your property and that you maintained control over them.
With respect to drug arrests based on traffic stops, if a police officer finds illegal narcotics in an area that was easily accessible to you, such as under your seat or in the glove compartment, that can be enough to establish constructive possession. The officer can simply assume you quickly hid the drugs to avoid immediate detection.
“But This Isn’t My Car!”
Constructive possession varies depending on the situation. If you are just a passenger in the back seat of someone else’s car and a police officer finds drugs in the glove compartment, you probably have a strong defense if you are later charged for possession. But if you are sitting in the front seat next to the driver, you could be in trouble, even if you honestly had no knowledge there was anything illegal in the glove compartment.
In other cases, prosecutors may use evidence from other incidents to help establish constructive possession. For example, in a recent case from El Paso, an unfortunate defendant found himself arrested twice under very similar circumstances. In July 2012, a police officer stopped the defendant for speeding. The defendant, who was alone, said he was driving a friend’s car.
After the officer became suspicious, he searched the car with the defendant’s permission and discovered 127 grams of cocaine in two bags, one found in the glove compartment and the other underneath the driver’s seat. The officer arrested the defendant and charged him with felony drug possession. At trial, the defendant said the drugs were not his, and reiterated the car belonged to a friend.
However, four months after this arrest, the defendant was stopped again for speeding by another police officer. This time the officer found cocaine under the “driver’s side floorboard of the car,” according to court records. The judge allowed the jury to hear evidence regarding this second arrest. The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty of possessing 4-200 grams of cocaine and sentenced him to 90 years in jail.
As a Texas appeals court explained in a decision upholding the jury’s verdict, the “striking similarities” between the two incidents made the second arrest relevant evidence when trying the defendant on the charges arising from the first arrest. It also illustrates how simply declaring, “This isn’t my car!” is often an inadequate defense when fighting a felony drug charge.
Are You Facing a Drug Arrest Following a Traffic Stop?
Many drug cases in Houston and Galveston begin with a seemingly benign traffic stop. If you are stopped, do not panic and do not volunteer any information that may be used against you in court later. You have the right to speak with an experienced Texas criminal defense attorney. Make sure you use that right. Call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.