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Firearm Enhancement Reversed By Sixth Circuit Due to Insufficient Evidence of Constructive Possession

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United States v. Wilson, No. 22-5068 (6th Cir. Dec. 6, 2022)

Facts:  Rifle Found Under Wilson's Seat Along with Other Drugs

In In April 2019, officers responded to a shoplifting call and saw three individuals matching the suspects’ description sitting in a truck. One suspect owned the truck and was sitting in the driver’s seat, while Williams and the other suspect were in the back. When police searched Wilson they found an assortment of controlled substances and cash. Officers also discovered three loaded firearms in the truck. A revolver was discovered under the front passenger seat, a handgun was in the back pocket of the front passenger seat, and a rifle was underneath the rear seat where Wilson had existed the vehicle from. The rifle was not visible without lifting the seat.

Wilson pled guilty to three counts of possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute. At sentencing, the district court overruled Wilson’s objection to a two-level sentencing enhancement pursuant to U.S.S.G. 2D1.1(b)(1) for possessing a firearm during the offense. The district court concluded that Wilson was in constructive possession of at least the rifle found under the backseat and that Wilson was “not able to demonstrate that it’s clearly improbable that the firearm was connected to the drug offense.” Wilson appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

Notes On Constructive Possession

Reviewing the district court’s application of the firearm enhancement for clear error, the Sixth Circuit noted that the government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the defendant actually or constructively possessed the weapon, and (2) such possession was during the commission of the offense. The court went on to define “constructive possession” as having ownership, or dominion or control over the item itself, or dominion over the premises where the item is located. Notably, this standard requires a showing of intent to exercise control. As such, something more than mere proximity is required to establish constructive possession.

Sixth Circuit:  Not enough to prove constructive possession

The Sixth Circuit concluded that there were inadequate facts to support the district court’s finding that Wilson constructively possessed one of the three firearms found in the truck. The government failed to present evidence that the rifle was visible or that Wilson knew it was under the seat. The only evidence the prosecution offered to show constructive possession was the rifle’s location under the seat where the government argued Wilson “would have access” to the rifle. The court concluded that this evidence merely showed the location of the firearm, not Wilson’s constructive possession.

Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court clearly erred in applying the sentencing enhancement under 2D1.1(b)(1). Wilson’s sentence was vacated and remanded to the district court for resentencing.

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