Friday, May 4, 2012
State Supreme Court Clarifies Criminal Venue Statute
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defendant who sold drugs in one county and stored them in another was properly tried in the first county after drugs were found in his storage locker, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously reinstated Rayshon Derrick Thomas’ conviction and sentence of 33 years to life imprisonment on charges of possession of cocaine for sale and possession of a firearm by convicted felon. The Fifth District Court of Appeal had reversed the judgment based on its conclusion that Thomas should have been tried in Fresno County, rather than in Madera County.
Evidence presented at his preliminary hearing and trial showed that Thomas lived and sold drugs in Madera County, where he was stopped by a Madera officer who saw him driving a red Honda Civic. The officer found this suspicious because Thomas had previously claimed that the vehicle was inoperable, and thus avoided providing proof of registration, which he was required to do because he was on parole.
When Thomas was stopped, police searched his backpack and found $12,500 in cash, plus a mini-storage receipt. He also had two cell phones and a pager and several rental-car receipts in his possession, suggesting he was involved in drug trafficking, an officer testified.
The officer said he went to the mini-storage unit, which was opened with a key seized from Thomas. The search produced over two pounds of cocaine, a stainless steel revolver wrapped in a handkerchief monogrammed with Thomas’ initials, $13,000 in cash, and Thomas’ high school diploma.
Thomas moved to dismiss the charges on the ground that venue was proper only in Fresno County, where the seized items were found. The motion was denied on the ground that he had “constructive possession” of the contraband in Madera because:
“His money is here. . . . His financing is here. He lives here. He is gang related to here. . . . The only thing absent is his inventory. And his inventory . . . is just across the county line...”
He was subsequently found guilty of the charged offenses by a Madera Superior Court jury.
Justice Goodwin H. Liu, writing for the high court, said that even if the trial judge was wrong about constructive possession, Madera County was a proper place to try the case under Penal Code Sec. 781.
The section provides that when a crime is committed “in part” in more than one county, or when “the acts or effects” constituting the crime or requisite to its commission occur in more than one county, the offense may be prosecuted in the superior court of any of those counties.
“In the present case, we have no difficulty concluding that venue was proper in Madera County because defendant committed preparatory acts in Madera County and because the effects of defendant’s unlawful possession of the drugs and firearm found in the Fresno storage locker would be felt in Madera County. The trial court reasonably concluded that defendant’s possession for sale of the cocaine and possession of the firearm in the Fresno County storage locker was part of a larger plan to sell drugs in Madera County.”
It was also reasonable, the justice said, to infer that Thomas intended to use the seized firearm, along with other seized evidence, in connection with his Madera County drug activities. “Permitting this case to be tried in Madera County satisfies the purposes of the venue requirement,” the jurist said, including promoting the convenience of parties and witnesses and vindicating the interest of the citizens of Madera County in punishing activities harmful to their community.
The case is People v. Thomas, 12 S.O.S. 2123.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company