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Law School Case Brief

Cty. Court v. Allen - 442 U.S. 140, 99 S. Ct. 2213 (1979)


The most common evidentiary device is the entirely permissive inference or presumption, which allows, but does not require, the trier of fact to infer the elemental fact from proof by the prosecutor of the basic one and which places no burden of any kind on the defendant. In that situation the basic fact may constitute prima facie evidence of the elemental fact. When reviewing this type of device, the court has required the party challenging it to demonstrate its invalidity as applied to him.


Respondents were jointly tried on weapon and drug charges. Respondents objected to introduction of the weapons and drugs into evidence, but the trial court overruled respondents' objection, relying on the presumption of possession created by N.Y. Penal Law § 265.15(3) that states, with certain exceptions, that the presence of a firearm in an auto is presumptive of its illegal possession by all persons then occupying the vehicle. Respondents moved to dismiss the charges. The trial court denied respondents' motion, and respondents were found guilty. Respondents filed a post-trial motion challenging the constitutionality of N.Y. Penal Law § 265.15(3), which was denied and affirmed on review. Respondents filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, contending that they were denied due process of law by application of the statutory presumption of possession. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the statute was unconstitutional. The State sought a writ of certiorari, which was granted. 


 Was the presumption of possession created by the New York Penal law unconstitutional?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment for respondents, finding that that it was improper in the habeas corpus proceeding to determine the constitutionality of the statute, and the application of the statutory presumption of possession was not unconstitutional. The Court held that N.Y. Penal Law § 265.15(3) created a permissive presumption, and the record as a whole established respondents' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial judge's instructions made it clear that the presumption was merely a part of the prosecution's case, that it gave rise to a permissive inference available only in certain circumstances, rather than a mandatory conclusion of possession, and that it could be ignored by the jury even if there was no affirmative proof offered by defendants in rebuttal. The judge explained that possession could be actual or constructive, but that constructive possession could not exist without the intent and ability to exercise control or dominion over the weapons. He also carefully instructed the jury that there was a mandatory presumption of innocence in favor of the defendants that controlled unless it, as the exclusive trier of fact, was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants possessed the handguns in the manner described by the judge. In short, the instructions plainly directed the jury to consider all the circumstances tending to support or contradict the inference that all four occupants of the car had possession of the two loaded handguns and to decide the matter for itself without regard to how much evidence the defendants introduced.

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