SailorsAllen Law

JA Rule on Circumstantial Evidence

May 24, 2017, the MNSC address circumstantial evidence stemming constructive possession of a firearm.  State v. Harris, A15-0711.   For close readers of Minnesota appellate cases, this has been percolating for a while.   A case that I tried really seemed to get the ball rolling.

I lost this case in the trial when drugs were found in someone’s pants hanging in the closet while she was out talking to the police and other people the police were interested in remaining in the house.  The COA flipped it saying there wasn’t sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove their case so it needs to be reversed.  So that made me feel great.   The jury convicted my client for a case where the COA said there is not enough evidence to do so.  So that means they probably hated my tie.  But the COA adopted many of arguments which made me feel better.

This case is not alone, there have been many cases flipped on the lack of circumstantial evidence and now one finally made it to the Supremes to settle it once and for all.  Here are the facts:

On March 4, 2014, a police officer was working with the US Marshalls Task force for JA.  No word on whether or not JA Rule’d.  JA had a warrant and the officer searched an area, wherever Ashanti is, where JA might be found.  The officer watched JA get into a Cadillac and watched the car drive away.  As Cadillacs are wont to do.  The officers learned that Aziz Ansari’s cousin, Harris was driving the car.  JA was in the front seat and KE was in the backseat.   The officer followed the Caddy for but did not immediately stop because they were waiting for additional police to arrive.  When they did, the officer tried to stop the car but the Caddy kept on driving for about three blocks.   The officer saw movement in the car.  When they got the freeway the officer got in front of the car to prevent them from getting by able to traverse at unsafe speeds.  The caddy stopped and several officers approached it.  Harris was removed from the car first.  JA was less cooperative than Harris.  He refused to show his hands.  Perhaps he hadn’t moisturized.  He made furtive movements in his lap.  Gross JA.  Even after getting out of the car, he reached back in.   KE was removed last.  When the police looked up, to the right of, and slightly behind the driver’s seat, they saw that the headlining had been altered.  Headlining for those of your who don’t headline is the material that covers the ceiling of an automobile interior.   The officers slide back the sunroof near this altered headlining and found a .45 caliber gun with a “huge” magazine attached it.   This was not the Ranger Rick of Magazines.  This was more like Vanity Fair.

Harris was charged with a Felon in Possession of a Firearm.  At trial, he stipulated he was ineligible to possess a firearm so the only question was whether he possessed the gun? The State introduced forensic evidence showing the firearm contained a mixture of male and female DNA from five or more people.  75.7% of the general population could be excluded from contributing the DNA but Harris, JA and KE could not.  So they were in the 23.3%.   Harris was found guilty because of course, he was because when you ask the jury to find the bad man did the bad thing they most often do.  The COA flipped the conviction on the lack of circumstantial evidence and the MNSC reviewed it.

The State was mad at the standard onto which the COA reviewed the case.  In a trial, the jury instruction for direct evidence and circumstantial evidence says they should be given the same weight.  That is it.  To back up, direct evidence of the sun is out is you see the sun.  Circumstantial evidence of the sun is out is if you look through your blinds and see light.  Either the sun is out or someone is shining the bat light into your house.  The MNSC said for almost a century they have applied a different standard of review for circumstantial evidence cases.  “To sustain a conviction based on circumstantial evidence, the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the circumstances proved  as a whole must be consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of guilt.”State v. Fox, 868 N.W.2d 206, 223 (Minn. 2015).  Circumstantial evidence must form a complete chain that, in view of the evidence as a whole, leads so directly to the guilt of the defendant as to exclude beyond a reasonable doubt any reasonable inference other than guilt. State v. Scharmer, 501 N.W.2d 620, 622 (Minn.  1993).  That instruction would be great to have during a trial.  It is confusing but anytime you can invoke human chains like you are winning.

The State wanted the Court to adopt other definitions of circumstantial evidence from other states.  The MNSC Mutumbo’ed that away.  Next, the State quibbled with the definition of CE.  The MNSC said we have defined it as “evidence from which the factfinder can infer whether the facts in dispute existed or did not exist.” State v. Hokanson, 821 N.W.2d 340, 354 (Minn. 2012).  They saw no problems with that definition.  Because direct evidence is based on personal knowledge or an observation, there needs does not need to be an inference. State v. Clark, 739 N.W.2d 412, 421 (Minn. 2007).   However, CE always requires an inferential step to prove a fact that is not required with direct evidence. State v. Silvernail, 831 N.W.2d 594, 604 (Minn. 2013).  Now, the State is getting mad.  They argued a lot cases have been dismissed because of CE.  Which is the legal equivalent of Johnny gets to drink pop from his parents so why don’t I? The argument fell as flat as the pop argument.   So we are not changing the standard of CE so let’s use the definition with the facts.

Since Harris was not in actual possession of the firearm so the State had to prove constructive possession.  The State can do this in two ways.  First by showing the firearm was found under the accused’s exclusive control to which others normally did not have access. State v. Florine, 226 N.W.2d 609, 11 (Minn. 1975).  Alternatively, if the police found the item in a place to which others had access, the State must show that there is a strong probability (inferable from other evidence) that at the time the accused was consciously exercising dominion and control over it. Id.  The State much prove more than mere proximity to the firearm. Id.  

Taking that into consideration here is what was proved.  Harris was driving a car.  JA was in the passenger seat.  KE was in the rear seat .  JA had a warrant.  An officer tried to pull over Harris.  Harris did not pull over.   The saw officer saw movement in the car.  The office noticed the headlining had been pulled down near the sunroof.   The officer saw an object they recognized as a butt end of a firearm.  The gun had a mixture of five people including male and female DNA.  None of the occupants in the car could be excluded along with about one-quarter of the world’s population.  The State said that was enough to convict.  The MNSC said no.

It wasn’t Harris’s Caddy.  Taking a while to pull over and not being excluded a possible DNA contributor is not enough.   There was movement in the car but no one said it was suspicious movement.  Suspicious movement is by definition, suspicious.   There was no testimony that Harris never reached toward the sunroof.  There is a reasonable inference that Harris did not know the gun was there.  There is a reasonable inference that Harris didn’t stop because JA had a warrant horrible event planning.   So the MNSC upheld the MNCOA that this was not enough to convict.  Harris wins and when reached for a quote JA said, “Holla, Holla.”