A jury convicted appellant of possession of cocaine. The court of appeals, finding that the evidence was legally insufficient, reversed that conviction and entered an acquittal.
San Antonio Police Officer Reyes testified that he and his partner, Officer Larios, were "targeting" a known drug-trafficking area on the evening of November 18, 2002, when they saw a woman walk toward a car, make contact with someone inside of it, and then walk away. She reappeared about fifteen minutes later as the passenger in a van that had its headlights turned off. The woman got out of the van and started toward the first car. When the officers got out of their car and started toward the van, the woman threw something down on the ground and started to run. Officer Larios caught her and retrieved the abandoned itemBa package of rock cocaine. Meanwhile, Officer Reyes approached the van and found crack cocaine in plain view on the driver's side floorboard and on the rear floorboard next to the back seat passengerBCynthia Priestley. The officers arrested the first woman, Terry Lee, the van driver, Robert Ochoa, and the back seat passenger, Cynthia Priestley.
Terry Lee told the officers that they could find more drugs at 923 Lombrano, which was Ms. Priestley's home. Ms. Priestley signed a consent-to-search form, and several officers accompanied her to 923 Lombrano. As Officer Reyes walked up the path to the house, he could see appellant through the transparent storm door. Appellant was sitting on a couch or chair watching TV and talking on the phone. The officers walked in the unlocked door. Appellant hung up the phone. When the officers asked appellant if he knew why they were there, he said, "Drugs." Immediately in front of appellantBwithin one foot of his armB was a coffee table with numerous baggies of cocaine and pill bottles, also containing cocaine.
The officers arrested appellant and then looked through the rest of the house. They found no other drugs and no one else in the house. In the front bedroom, they found a large quantity of men's clothing in disarray. In the back bedroom they found women's clothing. They found "a lot of letters" with appellant's name on them in a mail slot. One, a handwritten letter addressed to "Mr. Oliver Evans" at 923 Lombrano, from a "Mr. CED. D. Haynes #887472, Lynaugh Unit, 1098 S. Hwy 2037, Fort Stockton, Tx. 79755" was postmarked October 28, 2002, or slightly less than a month before the search. That envelope was admitted as an exhibit. Appellant had $160 in twenty dollar bills in his pocket.
After their search, the officers brought Ms. Priestley inside. She repeatedly told the officers that all of the drugs were hers and that appellant, who is her nephew, had no knowledge of them.
Appellant's former wife, Joslyn Jorden, testified on his behalf. She said that she was in the Army, stationed at Fort Hood. She said that, since early October of 2002, appellant had been living with their two young sons at her parents' home about fifteen miles from the Lombrano house. On weekends she would come down to see her family and help appellant fill out job applications. She said that Ms. Priestley lived with appellant's grandmother at 923 Lombrano. Appellant was "checking" on the house while his grandmother was in Oklahoma for a few days because Ms. Priestley was involved with drugs and had been selling items, including an airBconditioning unit, a stereo, and a TV, from her grandmother's home. "It was a huge issue" with Ms. Priestley's family. Ms. Jorden testified that, on the evening appellant was arrested, he had called her while he was checking on the Lombrano house. During that conversation, she "heard a lot of scuffling and then the phone hung up." When she called back, a police officer answered and said that appellant was going to jail.
Appellant was charged with (1) possession of a controlled substanceBcocaineBwith the intent to deliver it, and (2) simple possession of a controlled substance. The jury found him not guilty of the former, but guilty of the latter, and the trial judge sentenced him to ten years' imprisonment.
On appeal, appellant argued that the evidence was both legally and factually insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he had exercised "actual care, custody, control, or management of the cocaine." The court of appeals agreed, concluding that the record evidence failed to "affirmatively link" appellant to the cocaine other than by evidence of his presence and proximity to the drugs.
The court of appeals set out the correct standard for reviewing the legal sufficiency of the evidence:
The court of appeals then noted that, in a possession of a controlled substance prosecution, "the State must prove that: (1) the accused exercised control, management, or care over the substance; and (2) the accused knew the matter possessed was contraband."
The court of appeals also stated that this Court has held that "a factfinder may disbelieve some or all of a witness's testimony, even when that testimony is uncontradicted."
With this general background, we turn to the facts in this case.
The State argues that the single most important link or connection between appellant and the fourteen grams of cocaine rocks is the simple fact that he was sitting directly in front of them. They were within arm's reach; the coffee table was less than a foot away. This evidence constitutes two extremely strong "presence" and "proximity" links. Appellant was not merely present in a house with drugs cached away somewhere, they were right under his nose. The drugs were in plain viewBa third link. He was alone in the houseBa fourth link. He immediately admitted that he knew why the police had walked in the doorB"Drugs." That is a fifth link. He received mail at 923 Lombrano, thus raising a reasonable inference that he lived there, which, in turn, raises a reasonable inference that he had actual care, custody, and control of items found in plain view on the coffee table. This is a sixth link. He had $160 in twenties in his pocket, but he was apparently unemployed. This is a seventh, albeit weak, link. The State argues that the sum total of this circumstantial evidence is sufficient to support a rational jury's finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that appellant exercised actual care, custody, control, or management of the fourteen grams of cocaine on the coffee table. We agree.
The court of appeals, however, analyzed each one of these facts or links in isolation. Apparently relying on alternative inferences from or explanations for almost every piece of evidence, it disregarded that evidence and concluded that nothing but appellant's presence and proximity linked him to the drugs.
For example, the court of appeals disregarded the fact that appellant "was the sole occupant of the house" by saying that it was undisputed that Ms. Priestley lived there.
Similarly, the court of appeals disregarded appellant's statement to the police that he knew that they were there because of "drugs," based on "the undisputed evidence of the family's knowledge of Priestley's involvement with drugs and her arrest for selling drugs only moments before."
The court of appeals disregarded the evidence that appellant had received lots of mail at the Lombrano address because the letter offered into evidence was postmarked nearly a month earlier.
The court of appeals disregarded the evidence of the men's clothing in the front bedroom because it was never independently established as being appellant's clothing. That is true, but there was no suggestion that any other male lived in the front bedroom, thus, it was at least "a" reasonable inference that it was appellant's clothing and that he lived there. Also, the court of appeals noted that possession of $160 in cash is not "such a large amount of cash in today's times that it will yield a reasonable inference of illegal activity."
Appellant did offer evidence of a reasonable alternate hypothesis: he was merely "checking on" Ms. Priestley, who was known by her family to be involved with drugs, while his grandmother was in Oklahoma for a few days. He had just driven fifteen miles from his ex-wife's home, and the police serendipitously arrived at the very moment that he was calling his former wife at Fort Hood from his grandmother's phone. This is a plausible explanation for appellant's presence in the house and his proximity to the drugs, as well as his knowledge of their existence. This tidy explanation accounted nicely for almost all of the incriminating evidence. Also, Ms. Priestley's repeated statements to the police after appellant was arrested that all of the drugs were hers is consistent with Ms. Jorden's testimony. The jury was entitled to believe this evidence, but it was not required to do so. This "uncontradicted testimony" did not recite "undisputed facts." A jury could have found that both Ms. Jorden (appellant's former wife and the mother of his children, with whom he was still very friendly) and Ms. Priestley had a motive to place all blame on Ms. Priestley (she was, after all, caught "red-handed"). The jury, by its verdict, rejected this alternate scenario.
This jury was able to make a discriminating assessment of the facts, finding that the State proved appellant's possession of the cocaine beyond a reasonable doubt, but failed in its burden to prove "intent to deliver" those drugs beyond a reasonable doubt.
We conclude that the circumstantial evidence, when viewed in combination and its sum total, constituted amply sufficient evidence connecting appellant to the actual care, custody, control or management of the cocaine in front of him. It is the logical force of the circumstantial evidence, not the number of links, that supports a jury's verdict. The logical force of the combined pieces of circumstantial evidence in this case, coupled with reasonable inferences from them, is sufficient to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that appellant exercised actual care, custody, control, or management of the cocaine on the coffee table. The jury was not required to believe the contrary direct evidence from Ms. Priestley ("the drugs belong only to me, not my nephew") or circumstantial evidence from Ms. Jorden (providing an alternate innocent explanation of appellant's presence and proximity to the cocaine), who could both be considered interested witnesses.
We therefore reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand the case to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
WOMACK, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which PRICE and JOHNSON, JJ. joined.
I join the opinion of the Court and the substance of its reasoning. I would prefer that the Court did not use the term "affirmative link."
This term seems to have been used by the Court for the first time in Haynes v. State, 475 S.W.2d 739, 742 (Tex. Cr. App. 1971):
The precedents that the Haynes Court cited did not require an affirmative link, and they did not use the term or the concept of "affirmative links." They analyzed the circumstantial evidence of possession in the same way that circumstantial evidence of any element of an offense is analyzed. The evidence doesn't have to be any more affirmative or linking than circumstantial evidence in any other case. The issue is whether there was evidence of circumstances, in addition to mere presence, that would adequately justify the conclusion that the defendant knowingly possessed the substance.
Today's opinion for the Court, and the precedents it discusses, would reach the same result if they were cast in the terms that were used before Haynes. We would be better off if we affirmatively cut the link between our analysis and the term "affirmative link."
Id. at 36 (citing Olivarez v. State, 171 S.W.3d 283, 291 (Tex. App.BHouston [14th Dist.] 2005, no pet.)). These are simply some factors which may circumstantially establish the legal sufficiency of the evidence to prove a knowing "possession." They are not a litmus test.
For example, when a felony DWI defendant stipulates to having two prior DWI convictions, he has admitted that this fact is true. That jurisdictional fact is conclusively established and the defendant cannot later dispute it. See Bryant v. State, 187 S.W.3d 397, 400 (Tex. Crim. App. 2005). Applying that "undisputed fact" construct in this case, we note that appellant stipulated to the weight and composition of the cocaine; he could not now dispute it.