POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
New York State has codified several evidentiary presumptions authorizing courts to instruct a jury that it may infer a fact necessary for an element of a crime charged from supporting facts that the jury finds the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In conformance with federal due process requirements, the inferences to be drawn are not mandatory but permissive. This means that based on the evidence – including any facts adduced by the defense during cross-examination or rebuttal – the jury may, but is not required to, draw an inference that the element has been established.
Such presumptions are potentially decisive for a defendant’s fate and should be carefully considered by the courts. Prior to submitting a case to the jury, trial courts must decide whether the evidence presented was sufficient to instruct the jury on a statutory presumption. Subsequently, appellate courts often are tasked with reviewing whether such an instruction, if given and may have determined the jury’s guilty verdict on the related charge, was improper and constituted an error requiring reversal of the conviction on that charge.
As discussed earlier, in June of this year the NY Court of Appeals, in a 5-2 decision, upheld a conviction pursuant to Penal Law § 265.03(1)(b) for possession of a loaded firearm with the intent to use it unlawfully against another person, where the conviction on this charge was based on an evidentiary presumption under Penal Law § 265.15(4) stating that “[t]he possession by any person of any … weapon … is presumptive evidence of intent to use the same unlawfully against another.” As noted previously, the Court did not fully address a possible constitutional issue regarding the application of the presumption in that case because the issue was not raised on appeal.
Recently the Court of Appeals heard People v. Kims, Slip. Op. 07196 (N.Y. Oct. 23, 2014) that, among other issues, involved the applicability of another statutory presumption. Penal Law § 220.25(2) provides, in summary, that the presence of certain controlled substances in open view in a non-public room under circumstances evincing an intent to prepare such substances for sale is “presumptive evidence of knowing possession thereof by each and every person in close proximity to such controlled substance ….”
The permissive inference allowed by section 220.25(2) has come to be termed the “drug factory” presumption. The New York State Legislature enacted this presumption in 1971 to aid prosecutors in proving a possession charge in circumstances where police did not find a controlled substance on the person of a defendant at the time the defendant was arrested. The presumption nevertheless permits a jury to find “constructive possession” in circumstances where the defendant is in “close proximity” to other facts regarding controlled substances mentioned in the statute.
Presumption in section 220.25(2) applies to any person in close proximity to a controlled substance in the circumstances set forth and is similar to presumption in section 265.15(4) that assigns criminal responsibility for any person in a vehicle in which a firearm is found. The presumptive criminal responsibility extended in these sections to a broad scope of persons provides prosecutors with plea-bargaining opportunities to turn associated persons against one another.
In People v. Kims, the Court of Appeals focused on the fact that the defendant was apprehended by police after exiting his apartment, in which police subsequently found controlled substances and was not trying to avoid arrest by fleeing the location. Under these circumstances, the Court agreed with the Fourth Department’s decision that the defendant, when apprehended, was not in “close proximity” to the controlled substances.
Accordingly, the Court unanimously affirmed the Appellate Division Fourth Department’s decision holding that the trial court erred when instructing the jury on Penal Law § 220.25(2)’s presumption. Relying on its previous decision in People v. Martinez, 628 N.E.2d 1320 (N.Y. 1993), the Court reasoned that in this case the trial court’s error in instructing the jury was not harmless because the jury’s verdict was based on the constructive possession inference. The Court affirmed the Fourth Department’s reversal of the convictions based on the presumption and ordered retrial on these charges, while affirming the defendant’s conviction on other charges.