The three respondents, along with a young girl, were occupants of a vehicle stopped by the police for speeding. All four were convicted of illegal possession of two loaded firearms that were located in an open handbag, belonging to the girl, on the passenger side where the girl was sitting. Relying on a state statute, the trial court instructed the jury that they could (but need not) presume possession of the firearms by all the vehicle’s occupants merely from the presence of the firearms in the vehicle. After two state appellate courts affirmed the convictions, the respondents filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court that found that the mere presence of the respondents in the vehicle was not a sufficient basis for a jury to presume their possession of the firearms.
After a federal appellate court affirmed, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, finding that the statutory presumption was constitutional as applied to the respondents and did not violate their right of due process. The Court reasoned that a permissive, as opposed to a mandatory, evidentiary presumption was constitutional provided that both a rational connection existed between the respondents’ presence in the car and the presumption of possession and that their presence in the vehicle made their possession of the firearms more likely than not. Such evidentiary presumptions, however, arguably erode the constitutional right that every defendant be proven guilty not merely by a preponderance of the evidence but by evidence proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
RUSSELL L. CHRISTOPHER
References and Further Reading
See also Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307 (1985); Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228 (1987); Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977); Proof beyond a Reasonable Doubt; Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979)