United States v. Maldonado

United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.  23 F.3d 4 (1994)

Facts:  Ruben de lost Santos (“Santos”) was a seaman at the port of Cartagena, Colombia.  There he was given cocaine (8 kilos) that was to be delivered to Ponce, Puerto Rico.  Santos had earlier been approached by American agents, and he had accepted the drugs with the approval of his agent so they could track the drugs.  He was to deliver the drugs to Palestino in a hotel.  When Santos asked the front desk for Palestino, Rafael Angel Zavala Maldonado (“Zavala”) appeared and Santos followed him to his room.  Santos informed him that he has the drugs to be delivered to Palestino.  Zavala said he was Palestino’s friend and that he would be arriving shortly.  Zavala asked if they could put the cocaine in the other room, and Santos said no.  The two left the room and Santos had placed the bag in the closet.  When they left the room they were detained by the agents.

Procedural History:  Jury of the district court convicted Zavala of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.  Zavala appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction.

Issue:  Did Zavala’s actions constitute possession of the cocaine even though there is no evidence that he touched the bag or had an opportunity to remove it from the hotel.

Holding: Yes.  Zavala did have possession of the cocaine.

Reasoning:  Possession not only includes physical possession, but also “constructive” possession, including possession through another, and joint as well as exclusive possession. Constructive possession is commonly defined as “the power and intention to exercise control, or dominion and control over an object not in one’s ‘actual possession’”.  When the 2 left the room, Santos surrendered his actual possession of the drugs, and the drugs were stored in Zavala’s room.  A jury could find that 1) Zavala had sufficient power to control the drugs, and 2) an intention to exercise that power.  “The location of the object in a domain specially accessible to the defendant can be enough to permit the jury to find possession.  In many cases, intention and knowledge are inferred solely for the location of the drugs in an area to which the defendant has a priority of access.  No reasonable jury could have any doubt that Zavala was there to assist in the transmission of the drugs lodged in his room.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Comments:  J. Coffin writes dissenting opinion.  Says that the fact that the drugs weren’t paid for, Zavala was not the intended recipient, and Santos’ refusal to follow Zavala’s suggestion to put the bags in another room-effectively refutes any presumption that Zavala had any claim on the drugs.

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