Illinois Appellate Court Rules that Constructive Possession of a Weapon May Be Proven By a Statement to Non-Law Enforcement
This week, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction for Aggravated Unlawful Use of a Weapon when the most significant piece of evidence was an admission to a civilian that the bag containing the gun belonged to him.
In People v. Daniel Smith, No. 1-13-2176 (1st Dist. 2015), found athttps://www.illinoiscourts.gov/Opinions/AppellateCourt/2015/1stDistrict/1132176.pdf, a Greyhound bus driver saw the defendant board his bus in Markham, Illinois. The driver did not recall whether or not the defendant had luggage. When the bus reached its final destination and all passengers debarked the bus, the driver discovered a backpack. He unzipped the bag and discovered a weapon.
At trial, the driver testified that the defendant, who was 19 years old, approached him and said the bag was his. The driver asked what was in the bag and Smith said a BB gun. The driver took the backpack into his office and called a supervisor who notified the police. When the Chicago Police arrived it was discovered that the weapon was a semi-automatic blue steel handgun, Smith was still in the vicinity of the bus station’s office, was arrested,and charged with Aggravated Unlawful Use of a Weapon.
Under Illinois law, in order to be found guilty of Aggravated Unlawful Use of a Weapon, the State needed to prove that Smith knowingly possessed a weapon and that he was under 21 years old.
During his bench trial, Smith contradicted the bus driver as to his alleged statement. He stated that it was not his bag but looked like one he had at home and that the bus driver showed him the weapon and inquired about it. Smith testified that he told him that it looked like a BB gun.
The trial court found the driver credible and Smith incredible and found him guilty.
The Appellate Court’s opinion appears to be new law. As it noted, in a criminal case, the State needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that “(1) a crime was committed, the corpus delicti, and (2) the identity of the person who committed the crime.” The court acknowledged that the corpus delicti cannot be proven solely by a defendant’s admission and that there must be corroborating evidence. Additionally, the court explained that the State needed to prove constructive possession of the firearm by showing that Smith knew of the weapon’s presence and that he exercised control over the area where it was found.
In this case, the Appellate Court found that the bus driver found the gun on the bus near where Smith had been sitting and that the officer confirmed it was a handgun. Along with Smith’s statement to the bus driver, the Appellate Court found sufficient evidence to affirm his conviction. This was despite the facts that no one saw the defendant possess the bag and it was discovered after everyone was off the bus.
If Smith had not approached the bus driver and discussed the backpack with him, it is unlikely that he would have been charged or convicted. This case appears to expand how little corroboration is needed to prove the elements of possession of a weapon when no person has seen a defendant with the firearm or when he is not in close proximity to the weapon when it is discovered.
Lori G. Levin
Attorney at Law
180 N. LaSalle, Suite 3700
Chicago, IL 60601