Driver Held to a Higher Level of Accountability for Constructive Possession of Hidden Gun

Thompson v. Skipper, 2020 WL 6938150 (6th Cir. 2020)

Corey Thompson sold heroin to a confidential informant in two controlled buys at an apartment. After the second controlled buy, officers obtained a warrant to search the apartment. As officers were driving to serve the warrant, they saw Thompson and a passenger driving away from the apartment in an SUV. The officers pulled the vehicle over and arrested Thompson.

The court held that Thompson, as the SUV’s driver “is held to a higher level of accountability” for its contents, including the gun.

During their initial search of the vehicle, officers found multiple bags of heroin and cocaine in the center console and sunroof. They later discovered a loaded handgun under the back seat’s folding mechanism. The police did not find Thompson’s fingerprints on the gun. Thompson was convicted of three drug crimes and four gun crimes. The prosecution relied on the theory that Thompson “constructively” possessed the gun. Constructive possession is a term used to indicate legal possession even if the object isn’t in a person’s direct physical control. A person with constructive possession of a firearm must have knowledge of it and the ability to control it.

Thompson filed a federal habeas corpus writ, alleging there was insufficient evidence to connect him to the hidden gun. The court denied his petition, citing the “well-known relationship between drug dealing and the use of firearms as protection.” The court also noted testimony from an informant who “saw a gun in the back of the vehicle when she went with to make a drug delivery about a week earlier.” The court held that a jury could consider the gun’s proximity to both Thompson and the drugs and conclude he possessed the gun. The court also held that Thompson, as the SUV’s driver “is held to a higher level of accountability” for its contents, including the gun.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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