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County Court of Ulster County v. Allen

United States Supreme Court
442 U.S. 140 (1979)


Facts

Three adult men (defendants) and a 16-year-old girl were jointly tried for possessing two loaded handguns, a loaded machine gun and over a pound of heroin. Their car was stopped for speeding. The two heavy handguns were visible through the car window. At the time the car was stopped, the handguns were located in the girl’s open handbag on either the front floor or the front seat of the vehicle. The girl was sitting in the passenger side of the front. She admitted that the bag was hers. The machine gun and heroin were found in the trunk, which the police had managed to pry open, since no occupant had a key. The car had been borrowed from the driver’s brother that day. At trial, the jury convicted all four of possession of the handguns and acquitted them of possession of the trunk’s contents. All four original defendants objected to the introduction into evidence of the three guns and heroin. They claimed that the state had not adequately demonstrated a connection between the evidence and them. New York has a statute that states that the presence of a firearm in a vehicle is presumptive evidence of its illegal possession by all persons in the vehicle at the time in question. The statute says that the presumption of possession does not apply if the weapon is found “upon the person” of one of the occupants. Counsel for the men argued that since the handguns were found in the girl’s purse, the presumption of possession does not apply to them. The court overruled the objection. The judge gave the jury the instruction that it was entitled to infer possession from the defendants’ presence in the car. The judge did not instruct the jury on the “upon the person” exception. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the defendants can challenge the constitutionality of the statute and that the statute is “unconstitutional on its face.” The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

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Issue

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Holding and Reasoning (Stevens, J.)

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Dissent (Powell, J.)

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