People v. J.L.
Factual Background: J.L was 17 and staying the night at his friend, Paul’s, basement apartment when he was randomly shot three times while in the kitchen smoking weed with Paul. When the police arrived, they searched the apartment and found a submachine gun (MAC 11) in a drawer, sitting atop an envelope bearing J.L.’s name and a different address. DNA testing revealed that J.L. was a contributor to the samples taken from the MAC 11 but couldn’t determine how it had gotten there (i.e., whether it was transfer DNA). The expert also allowed for the possibility that the source of the DNA was J.L.’s dripping blood, though a police officer testified that he didn’t remember seeing blood on the gun. J.L. testified that he ran to the bedroom to look for a towel and saw a gun in an open drawer but did not pick it up. The police found him outside with a towel wrapped around his neck. J.L. was impeached with prior statements. Defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a specific charge that possession must be voluntary. The jury convicted him of third-degree criminal possession of the MAC 11.
Issue Before the Court: Was J.L. entitled to a charge on voluntary possession?
Holding and Reasoning: Yes, the four-judge majority held (Rivera, Stein, Fahey and Wilson), because there was a reasonable view of the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the defense, that, to the extent J.L. constructively possessed the weapon at all (his defense was that he did not), he did not have the gun in his possession for the requisite period of time for it to be considered a voluntary possession; he came upon it while frantically searching for a towel. It is not necessary to concede possession to qualify for a voluntary possession charge – if there is evidence pointing in two directions, the charge is to be given if one of those directions supports the charge, and that evidence can come from the prosecution’s case as well. The majority distinguished knowing possession – an awareness of the gun, which he admitted he had — from the temporal issue of whether the possession was too fleeting to be voluntary.
CAL Observes: The case examines the “voluntary” element of possession, not typically the subject of a challenge at trial, and explores its temporal quality, so is useful to practitioners for that purpose. The client’s youth was likely a factor in the majority’s finding (it is mentioned first thing in the decision), underscoring that this is a factor practitioners should emphasize in their advocacy. As standards are reviewed and discussed in a context where the defense prevailed, the case also provides useful authority generally going forward.
Of interest to Court-watchers may be the stark and transparent division between the majority and dissent in their interpretation of the facts and the relevant legal standards. Among other things, the majority expressly accuses the dissent of “repeatedly resolving competing inferences in favor of the prosecution” and selectively reading the record in favor of the prosecution in contravention of the rules requiring the opposite when a court is considering whether to provide a defense. This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the players on the Court today, but it still strikes as surprising to see it stated so frankly. Of course, the dissent, penned by the Chief Judge, accuses the majority of a “skewed analysis.”