Defendant was charged by bill of information with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in violation of La.R.S. 40:966(A)(1). After trial in which defendant represented himself until he fled during a recess following the state's case in chief, a jury returned a verdict of guilty as charged.
The evidence adduced at trial showed the following: On September 25, 2000, a computer weight monitoring system set up on Interstate 20 in Caddo Parish by state police registered an eastbound Volvo 18-wheeler 3,000 pounds over the state weight limit of 80,000 pounds. The vehicle, driven by defendant, was directed to pull over into the nearest weigh station where the truck was weighed on the stationary scales and again registered 3,000 pounds over the legal limit. Sergeant Brierre Thomas, with the Louisiana Department of Transportation, Weights and Standard Unit, and Deputy Danny Williams, a K-9 officer with the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office, interviewed defendant. Defendant told them that he was traveling to New York; however, the bill of lading showed that he was hauling a load of grapes from Reedley, California to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Because they were concerned about the discrepancy in the destination for the load of grapes and about defendant's seemingly wayward route from California to either New York or Pennsylvania, Sergeant Thomas and Deputy Williams asked him to open the back of the trailer so they could see what he had as cargo. Defendant refused to open the trailer, telling the officers he was a member of the NAACP, and that he knew he had a right to refuse to allow the search.
Immediately after defendant refused to open the trailer, Sergeant Thomas called Peggy Adley, an agent with the Public Service Commission. Sergeant Thomas testified that he called Adley because she would need to know what was in the trailer and that she would need to check defendant's "single state registration" and insurance, and inspect his load to see if it matched his bill of lading. Officer Adley arrived and told defendant that she had the right to inspect the trailer without his consent. Defendant produced a key, unlocked the padlock, and opened the trailer's doors. At the request of Officer Adley, Officer Thomas climbed up onto the back of the trailer to inspect the load. The officer testified that as he stood up at the back of the trailer he saw in "plain view" the end of a large package sitting on top of the boxes of grapes, less than an arm's length from the back end of the load. Officer Thomas turned his head and asked defendant what the object was, and defendant indicated that he knew nothing about it. The officer then reached over the stacked boxes of grapes and pulled the package towards him. The package was wrapped in clear plastic wrap and duct tape; it measured approximately a foot wide and six-and-a-half to seven feet long. According to Adley, who stood outside at the rear of the truck, despite its size, the package was not visible from her vantage point when she looked through the opened doors of the trailer.
After Thomas removed the package, Deputy Williams cut a slit in the side and determined that the bundle contained marijuana. In all, the package contained approximately 52 pounds of marijuana possessing a street value of $52,000. Both officers testified at trial that the sheer amount of marijuana, its value, and the manner of its packaging, were all consistent with an intent to distribute. However, no fingerprints were found on the package and the officers had otherwise determined that defendant's bill of lading for his cargo was in good order.
Because defendant fled immediately after the state presented its case in chief, he did not testify at trial and did not put on a
In reversing the defendant's conviction, the Second Circuit panel emphasized that Sergeant Thomas found the marijuana not in the cab of the tractor but in the trailer, on top of the truck's legal cargo of grapes and positioned out of the plain view of anyone standing, as Adley had, in the opened doors at the rear of the vehicle. On the premise that "one cannot apply private vehicle case law regarding constructive possession to drugs found in the cargo area of a common carrier involving the transportation of goods or persons," Pigford, 39,306 at 10, 892 So.2d at 730, the court of appeal reasoned that defendant's access to the cargo area did not alone indicate that he had knowledge of the contraband concealed in the trailer. In the appellate court's view, the state needed to present additional evidence demonstrating defendant's guilty knowledge "to preclude the possibility that the contraband was put there by third persons during the loading of the cargo, or evidence proving the driver's knowledge of the contraband in the cargo area." Id. The court of appeal ultimately concluded that the state's evidence did not exclude the reasonable hypothesis that persons responsible for loading the trailer placed the marijuana on top of the grapes and out of sight for unloading by other members of the conspiracy at the destination point for the truck. In addition, although the tractor was registered to defendant's wife, who was with him at the time of his arrest, the state presented no evidence at trial as to the ownership of the cargo trailer. The state's case therefore did not "preclude the possibility that the defendant may have backed his Volvo tractor up to someone else's loaded trailer, hitched the trailer to his tractor, locked the trailer doors, and driven off." Pigford, 39,306 at 13, 892 So.2d at 731.
However, the pertinent question on review was not whether the appellate court found that defendant's hypothesis of innocence offered a reasonable explanation for the evidence at trial but whether jurors acted reasonably in rejecting it as a basis for acquittal. In reviewing the sufficiency of evidence, an appellate court must determine that the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, or a mixture of both, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, was sufficient to convince a
In the present case, the court of appeal justified its decision to reverse in part on grounds that the state failed to negate the possibility that defendant simply hooked his tractor up to the wrong trailer and unwittingly drove off with over $52,000 worth of marijuana and someone else's legal load of grapes. That alternative hypothesis of innocence may have been possible, but it clearly was not so probable that reasonable jurors would necessarily have to entertain a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilt. As to the hypothesis of innocence actually advanced by defendant at trial through his cross-examination of the state's witnesses, i.e., that he did not load the trailer and therefore remained unaware of the marijuana stashed by someone else on top of his legal load and out of sight to a casual observer, defendant clearly had dominion and control over the trailer and its contents as well as his tractor. The trailer had been padlocked only and Officer Thomas's testimony at trial informed jurors of the difference between a trailer sealed by the shipper to deny the driver or anyone else access to the contents during transportation and a trailer merely padlocked, as to which the driver retains access to the interior and cargo. Officer Thomas explained that the driver of a sealed cargo would not break the seal "because the load may be turned down because the load has been tampered with." The seal thus prevents the driver from gaining access to the load until it is delivered. On the other hand, "[a] load that has a lock on it with him having the key then he has ample opportunity and time to do whatever he wants to with the load. He can open it up, go in there and check it, do whatever."
Defendant's dominion and control over the trailer and access to its contents did not alone establish his guilty knowledge of the marijuana bundle placed on top of the grape pallets. See State v. Major, 03-3522 at 8-9 (La.12/1/04), 888 So.2d 798, 803. Nevertheless, guilty knowledge, an essential component of any showing that a defendant has constructive possession of contraband, i.e., dominion and control over it although the contraband is not in his actual possession, State v. Bell, 566 So.2d 959, 960 (La.1990); State v. Sweeney, 443 So.2d 522, 528 (La.1983), may be inferred from the circumstances of the transaction. Major, 03-3522 at 8-9, 888 So.2d at 803; State v. Goiner, 410 So.2d 1085, 1087 (La.1982).
In the present case, the court of appeal feared that "[t]o convict a driver
Defendant's apparently wayward course and attempt to conceal his ultimate destination gave rise to a reasonable inference that he had a particular and not-so-innocent reason for traveling far out of his way although engaged in interstate shipment of perishable cargo. The marijuana may not have been in plain view from outside the trailer but anyone with access to the cargo could have found the package in the same way that Officer Thomas discovered it, simply by standing in the back of the trailer and inspecting the load. The supposed conspirators loading the trailer had therefore chosen the least likely spot to conceal the six-to-seven-foot-long marijuana
Finally, rational jurors could also consider the likelihood that a person would commit over $50,000 worth of marijuana to a carrier completely oblivious of the conspiracy to ship the contraband, although the load had not been sealed but merely padlocked and the driver therefore retained access to the trailer's interior and could easily find the package placed on top of the legal load. See Major, 03-3522 at 10, 888 So.2d at 803 ("`The quantity of drugs and cash in the car indicated the likelihood of drug dealing, an enterprise to which a dealer would be unlikely to admit an innocent person with the potential to furnish evidence against him.'") (quoting Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 373, 124 S.Ct. 795, 801, 157 L.Ed.2d 769 (2003)); see also United States v. Serrano-Lopez, 366 F.3d 628, 635 (8th Cir.2004) ("The large quantity of drugs involved is evidence of the defendants' knowledge. Even if the drugs were not owned by the defendants, it is unlikely that the owner would place approximately $130,000 worth of cocaine in the hands of people who do not even know it is there.").
Under these circumstances, we conclude that jurors reasonably rejected the hypothesis of innocence advanced by defendant, and that the evidence presented at trial suggested no other hypothesis necessarily giving rise to reasonable doubt as to defendant's guilty knowledge of the marijuana within the trailer. The evidence otherwise supported the jury's finding that defendant had dominion and control over the contraband by virtue of his access to the interior of the trailer and that he therefore had constructive possession of the marijuana, in an amount and value sufficient to support an inference of intent to distribute. Accordingly, the decision below is vacated, defendant's conviction and sentence are reinstated, and this case is remanded to the court of appeal for consideration of the remaining counseled and pro se assignments of error pretermitted on original hearing.
OPINION OF THE COURT OF APPEAL VACATED; CONVICTION AND SENTENCE REINSTATED; CASE REMANDED TO COURT OF APPEAL.