State v. Kennedy, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-99 (Apr. 6, 2021)

Officers responding to a report of a suspicious vehicle found the defendant and a female passenger parked in a white pickup truck on the side of the road. When an officer asked if there was anything illegal in the vehicle, the defendant replied “you know I like my pot.” The passenger consented to a search of her handbag, which revealed marijuana, and officers began searching the truck. A backpack found in the back of the truck contained marijuana, paraphernalia, and a handgun in an unlocked box. The defendant stated that the drugs were his. The defendant’s sister was called to come get the vehicle, and when she arrived she told the officers that the gun was hers and she had placed it in the backpack without the defendant’s knowledge. The sister also testified to ownership of the gun at a court hearing. The case went to trial before a jury, and the defendant was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and attaining habitual felon status.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his motion to dismiss the felon in possession charge should have been granted because there was insufficient evidence that he was in possession of the firearm. The appellate court disagreed and held that the motion to dismiss was properly denied. At trial, the state proceeded on a theory of constructive possession, arguing that the defendant was not in actual possession of the gun but he was aware of its presence and had the power and intent to control its disposition and use. The appellate court agreed that there was sufficient evidence of constructive possession to survive a motion to dismiss in this case: defendant was the owner and driver of the truck; it was his backpack with his belongings inside of it; and he did not express surprise when the gun was found or disclaim ownership of it. “The State presented substantial evidence of constructive possession because Defendant’s power to control the contents of his vehicle is sufficient to present an inference of knowledge and possession of the firearm found therein.”