County Court of Ulster County v. Allen - 442 U.S. 140 (1979)
U.S. Supreme Court
County Court of Ulster County v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140 (1979)
County Court of Ulster County v. Allen
Argued February 22, 1979
Decided June 4, 1979
442 U.S. 140
Respondents (three adult males) and a 16-year-old girl (Jane Doe) were jointly tried in a New York state court on charges, inter alia, of illegally possessing two loaded handguns found in an automobile in which they were riding when it was stopped for speeding. The guns had been positioned crosswise in Jane Doe's open handbag on either the front floor or front seat on the passenger side where she was sitting. All four defendants objected to the introduction of the guns into evidence, arguing that the State had not adequately demonstrated a connection between the guns and the defendants. The trial court overruled the objection, relying on the presumption of possession created by a New York statute providing that the presence of a firearm in an automobile is presumptive evidence of its illegal possession by all persons then occupying the vehicle, except when, inter alia, the firearm is found "upon the person" of one of the occupants. The trial court also denied respondents' motion to dismiss the charges on the alleged ground that such exception applied because the guns were found on Jane Doe's person, the court concluding that the applicability of the exception was a question of fact for the jury. After being instructed that it was entitled to infer possession from the defendants' presence in the car, to consider all circumstances tending to support or contradict such inference, and to decide the matter for itself without regard to how much evidence the defendants introduced, the jury convicted all four defendants of illegal possession of the handguns. Defendants' post-trial motion in which they challenged the constitutionality of the New York statute as applied to them, was denied. Both the intermediate appellate court and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, the latter court holding that it was a jury question whether the guns were on Jane Doe's person, treating this question as having been resolved in the prosecution's favor, and concluding that, therefore, the presumption applied, and that there was sufficient evidence to support the convictions. The court also summarily rejected the argument that the presumption was unconstitutional as applied in this case. Respondents then filed a
habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court, contending that they were denied due process of law by the application of the statutory presumption. The District Court issued the writ, holding that respondents had not "deliberately bypassed" their federal claim by their actions at trial, and that 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 United States Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the New York Court of Appeals had decided respondents' constitutional claim on its merits, rather than on any independent state procedural ground that might have barred collateral relief, and, without deciding whether the presumption was constitutional as applied in this case, that the statute is unconstitutional on its face.
1. The District Court had jurisdiction to entertain respondents' claim that the statutory presumption is unconstitutional. There is no support in New York law or the history of this litigation for an inference that the New York courts decided such claim on an independent and adequate state procedural ground that bars the federal courts from addressing the issue on habeas corpus. If neither the state legislature nor the state courts indicate that a federal constitutional claim is barred by some state procedural rule, a federal court implies no disrespect for the State by entertaining the claim. Pp. 442 U. S. 147-154.
2. The United States Court of Appeals erred in deciding the facial constitutionality issue. In analyzing a mandatory presumption, which the jury must accept even if it is the sole evidence of an element of an offense (as opposed to a purely permissive 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), it is irrelevant that there is ample evidence in the record other than the presumption to support a conviction. Without determining whether the presumption in this case was mandatory, the Court of Appeals analyzed it on its face as if it were, despite the fact that the state trial judge's instructions made it clear that it was not. Pp. 442 U. S. 154-163.
3. As applied to the facts of this case, the statutory presumption is constitutional. Under the circumstances, the jury would have been entirely reasonable in rejecting the suggestion that the guns were in Jane Doe's sole possession. Assuming that the jury did reject it, the case is tantamount to one in which the guns were lying on the car's floor or seat in the plain view of respondents, and in such a case, it is
surely rational to infer that each of the respondents was fully aware of the guns' presence and had both the ability and the intent to exercise dominion and control over them. The application of the presumption in this case thus comports with the standard, Leary v. United States, 395 U. S. 6, that there be a "rational connection" between the basic facts that the prosecution proved and the ultimate fact presumed, and that the latter is "more likely than not to flow from" the former. Moreover, the presumption should not be judged by a more stringent "reasonable doubt" test, insofar as it is a permissive, rather than a mandatory, presumption. Pp. 442 U. S. 163-167.
568 F.2d 998, reversed.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 442 U. S. 167. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 168.