County Court Of Ulster County v. Allen

442 U.S. 140 (1979)


A New York statute provides that, with certain exceptions, the presence of a firearm in an automobile is presumptive evidence of its illegal possession by all persons then occupying the vehicle. Allen (Ds), Four persons, three adult males (respondents) and a 16-year-old girl (Jane Doe, who is not a respondent here), were jointly tried on charges that they possessed two loaded handguns, a loaded machine gun, and over a pound of heroin found in a Chevrolet in which they were riding when it was stopped for speeding. The two large-caliber handguns, which together with their ammunition weighed approximately six pounds, were seen through the window of the car by the investigating police officer. They were positioned crosswise in an open handbag on either the front floor or the front seat of the car on the passenger side where Jane Doe was sitting. Jane Doe admitted that the handbag was hers. The machinegun and the heroin were discovered in the trunk after the police pried it open. The car had been borrowed from the driver's brother earlier that day. The jury convicted Ds of possession of the handguns and acquitted them of possession of the contents of the trunk. Ds objected to the introduction into evidence of the two handguns, the machinegun, and the drugs, arguing that the State (P) had not adequately demonstrated a connection between their clients and the contraband. The trial court overruled the objection, relying on the presumption of possession created by the New York statute. The three male defendants also moved to dismiss the charges relating to the handguns on the ground that the guns were found on the person of Jane Doe. Ds made this motion both at the close of the prosecution's case and at the close of all evidence. The trial judge twice denied it, concluding that the applicability of the 'upon the person' exception was a question of fact for the jury. The judge instructed the jurors that they were entitled to infer possession from Ds' presence in the car. Ds challenged the constitutionality of the New York statute as applied in this case. The motion was denied. The convictions were affirmed by the Appellate Division. The New York Court of Appeals also affirmed. It concluded that the presumption applied and that there was sufficient evidence to support the convictions. Ds then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus; they were denied due process of law by the application of the statutory presumption of possession. The District Court issued the writ; the mere presence of two guns in a woman's handbag in a car could not reasonably give rise to the inference that they were in the possession of three other persons in the car. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. The court, without deciding whether the presumption was constitutional as applied in this case, concluded that the statute is unconstitutional on its face because the 'presumption obviously sweeps within its compass (1) many occupants who may not know they are riding with a gun (which may be out of their sight), and (2) many who may be aware of the presence of the gun but not permitted access to it.' The Supreme Court granted certiorari. The petition for a writ of certiorari presented three questions: (1) whether the District Court had jurisdiction to entertain respondents' claim that the presumption is unconstitutional; (2) whether it was proper for the Court of Appeals to decide the facial constitutionality issue; and (3) whether the application of the presumption, in this case, is unconstitutional.