This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).






State of Minnesota,


Martin Ruelas Guzman,


Filed June 26, 2001


Stoneburner, Judge


Dakota County District Court

File No. K6992759


Mike Hatch, Minnesota Attorney General, Suite 500, 525 Park Street, St. Paul, MN 55103; and


James C. Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, Scott A. Hersey, Assistant Dakota County Attorney, Dakota County Judicial Center, 1560 West Highway 55, Hastings, MN 55033 (for respondent)


John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Sharon E. Jacks, Assistant State Public Defender, Suite 600, 2829 University Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)



            Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Stoneburner, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.*


U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




            Appellant challenges his conviction of second-degree controlled substance crime, arguing that the circumstantial evidence presented was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he constructively possessed the cocaine found in the motor vehicle he occupied with three other men.  Because the circumstantial evidence was inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except appellant’s guilt, we affirm.



            On October 25, 1999, appellant Martin Ruelas Guzman got a ride from the West Side bar in West St. Paul with three men he has known since he came to Minnesota in 1990.  Appellant, who testified that he only knew the men by their first names, testified that “Jesse” drove the vehicle, “Jorge” was the front seat passenger, “Raphael” (Jesse’s brother) was seated behind Jesse and appellant was seated next to Raphael.  A West St. Paul police officer saw this vehicle accelerate quickly and run a red light.  The officer activated his lights and siren.  Jesse accelerated and the officer gave chase.  Jesse lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree and a building, ending the chase.  The officer, who was a half a block behind the vehicle at the time of the crash, got out of his squad car and walked to the crashed vehicle within seconds of the accident.  He saw the four occupants “[o]ne at each door” of the crashed four-door vehicle.   Appellant was trying climb over Raphael to get out of the rear driver-side window.  Raphael was slumped to his right.  The officer helped appellant out of the vehicle then secured and searched him.  The officer found a social security card for “Poncho Hernandez,” 74 one-hundred-dollar bills, two twenty-dollar bills and two one-dollar bills in appellant’s wallet and pockets.  At the police station, appellant initially identified himself as Poncho Hernandez, but later admitted to being Martin Guzman Ruelas.[1] 

            Nikki, a dog trained to detect drugs, was used to search the impounded vehicle.  Nikki first “indicated” in the backseat.  A ripped baggie of white powder, later identified as cocaine, was found under the seat located near where the left hip of a person seated on the passenger side of the backseat would have been.  Some cocaine was around and under the ripped baggie.  Nikki also “indicated” when placed in the front seat on the driver’s side, and was attempting to get under the driver’s seat towards the backseat.

            A smear of white powder was observed on the back of the front passenger seat, where a backseat passenger may have braced himself against the seat; speckles of white powder were on the passenger-side backseat, and a rolled-up dollar bill, identified as used to snort cocaine, was on the backseat passenger-side floor.  No analysis was made of the smear or speckles, but officers testified that the substance appeared to be cocaine. 

Appellant was charged with second-degree controlled substance crime for possessing six or more grams of cocaine and with giving a false name to a police officer.  At trial, appellant testified that as Jesse, the driver, accelerated, Jesse removed a shoe and tossed it to Raphael, who caught it, removed a baggie of cocaine from the sole and lowered his hand near appellant.[2]  Later in his testimony, appellant testified that Raphael was holding a rolled-up dollar bill in his hand, snorting cocaine from the baggie during the chase, and was thrown onto appellant at the time of the crash. 

Appellant testified that at the time of the crash, he braced himself with his feet against the front seat, but made a gesture while describing this action as if bracing with his hands against the back of the front seat.  Appellant, however, verbally denied having used his hands to brace himself against the seat. 

Just before the state rested, the prosecutor moved the district court to admit Spreigl evidence.  The district court withheld ruling on the admissibility of Spreiglevidence based on appellant’s trial counsel’s argument that the state had produced sufficient evidence to support a conviction and that the case was strong, eliminating the need for the Spreigl evidence.  After the appellant’s case was submitted, the district court allowed the Spreigl evidence.  The evidence showed that on a prior occasion, appellant had been arrested at a bar with a large amount of cash and a small amount of cocaine, and that a baggie of cocaine was found stuffed between the cushions, under the backseat, of the squad car in which appellant was transported, in a manner similar to the placement of the baggie of cocaine in this case.  In the prior matter, appellant pleaded guilty to and was convicted of possession with intent to sell, although he continued to deny any connection to the cocaine found in the squad car.  The jury found appellant guilty.  This appeal followed.



            This court reviews sufficiency of the evidence by carefully analyzing the record to determine whether the evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the conviction, sufficiently supports the verdict.  State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (Minn. 1989).  A conviction based on circumstantial evidence merits stricter scrutiny, but it will be upheld if the reasonable inferences drawn from the circumstantial evidence are consistent with guilt and inconsistent with any other rational hypothesis.  State v. Walen, 563 N.W.2d 742, 750 (Minn. 1997); State v. Scharmer, 501 N.W.2d 620, 622 (Minn. 1993).  The evidence need not “be consistent only with a specific theory advanced by the prosecution.”  State v. Race, 383 N.W.2d 656, 662 (Minn. 1986).  A jury is still in the best position to evaluate circumstantial evidence, and despite the stricter standard of review, a jury’s verdict is entitled to due deference.  Id.

            Appellant argues that because several inferences could be drawn from the evidence, including that he was not constructively in possession of the cocaine, the state has failed to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  A person is guilty of possession of a controlled substance if he knows the nature of the substance and either physically or constructively possesses it.  State v. Florine, 303 Minn. 103, 104, 226 N.W.2d 609, 610 (1975).  As the jury was instructed in this case, an individual may constructively possess a controlled substance alone or with others.  State v. Denison, 607 N.W.2d 796, 799 (Minn. App. 2000).  If others had access to the location of the controlled substance, as in this case, constructive possession may be proved if “the evidence indicates a strong probability that the defendant exercised dominion and control over the area.”  Id. at 800.  This court looks at the totality of the circumstances in assessing whether or not constructive possession has been established.  State v. Munoz, 385 N.W.2d 373, 377 (Minn. App. 1986).  This court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the state and assume that the factfinder believed the state’s witnesses and disbelieved any contrary evidence.  State v. McKenzie, 511 N.W.2d 14, 17 (Minn. 1994); State v. Bias, 419 N.W.2d 480, 484 (Minn. 1988).

            The purpose of the constructive possession doctrine is to include within the possession statute those cases where the state cannot prove actual or physical possession at the time of arrest, but where the inference is strong that the defendant at one time physically possessed the substance or exercised dominion and control over it.


Denison, 607 N.W.2d at 799-800, (quoting State v. Lozar,  458 N.W.2d 434, 441 (Minn. App. 1990), review denied (Minn. Sept. 28, 1990)).

            Appellant argues that he was merely passively present in a car where cocaine was being used.  The facts, however, support a contrary inference.  The cocaine was found adjacent to where appellant was seated in the vehicle.  The rolled-up dollar bill for cocaine snorting was found in the area where his feet would have been.  Smears of white powder were found on the back of the front seat directly in front of where appellant was seated, and powder speckles were found on the seat where appellant had been seated.  Appellant’s assertion that the driver removed and threw his shoe into the back seat at the beginning of a high-speed chase and that Raphael removed a baggie of cocaine from the shoe and held the baggie in his right hand while using a rolled dollar bill held in his left hand to inhale cocaine during the high speed chase, all without leaving the baggie, bill, or any trace of cocaine on his side of the backseat, is not a rational hypothesis.  Although Raphael may have possessed the cocaine at some time during the evening, the circumstantial evidence is consistent with appellant’s possession and is inconsistent with any rational hypothesis that appellant never possessed the cocaine.



* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1] On court documents and at trial, appellant was referred to as Martin Ruelas Guzman, the American ordering of his Mexican name.

[2] Appellant never testified that he saw Raphael stuff the baggie into the seat: “I only saw him lowering his hand, but I didn’t quite see how he pushed it.”