This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
James Antino Walker,
State of Minnesota,
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 99065260
Susan K. Maki, Assistant State Public Defender, Suite 600, 2829 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Suite 500, 525 Park Ave., St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K. Jenny, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Huspeni, Judge[*].
A jury found James Walker guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm. Walker appeals, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. Because Walker is a convicted felon who may not legally possess a firearm and because the evidence supports the jury's determination that Walker possessed a .38-caliber revolver, we affirm.
F A C T S
Minneapolis police seized a .38-caliber revolver from a vehicle driven by James Walker at about 1:00 a.m. on July 4, 1999. The police were responding to a 911 report of an argument at the north end of Sibley Park involving a threat to get a gun. The two dispatched officers saw no one in the immediate area designated by the caller, but as they continued around the north end of the park they stopped a vehicle that was making erratic and unsignalled turns.
Walker identified himself to the officers but was unable to produce a license or proof of insurance. Through information obtained from their mobile data unit, one of the officers ascertained that Walker’s driving privileges were cancelled and took him into custody. The other officer began an inventory search of the vehicle to prepare it for towing. He discovered a baggy of crack cocaine between the doorframe and the driver's seat and a box of .38-caliber rounds in the center console. With the assistance of a canine unit, the police also found a black satchel or purse (strapped bag) on the floor directly behind the center console within arm's reach of the driver's seat. The strapped bag contained a loaded .38-caliber revolver, a crack pipe in a cigarette box, and two boxes of small, decorative figurines with hollow bases.
Hennepin County charged Walker, a convicted felon, with illegal possession of a firearm and fifth-degree controlled-substance crime. Walker pleaded not guilty to both charges and defended at trial on the theory that he had not possessed the drugs found in the doorframe or the revolver found in the strapped bag. The state presented testimony of three witnesses: an arresting officer, the registered owner of the vehicle Walker was driving, and a forensic scientist who testified that the only usable fingerprints that he was able to obtain from the exhibits were those of an arresting officer.
The registered owner of the vehicle, Gary VanGunst, testified that he had met Walker through a mutual friend who was the mother of Walker’s child. This friend was an intermediary in the sale of the vehicle, a Ford Bronco, to Walker six weeks before Walker’s arrest. VanGunst produced the tabbed end of the owner’s title, which he testified Walker had signed and which had the signature James Walker on the line provided for the purchaser. The revolver was unregistered.
The jury found Walker guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm and was unable to reach a verdict on possession of a controlled substance. Walker appealed the conviction and later moved to remand to the district court for postconviction proceedings. The postconviction court denied relief on Walker’s claims of improper forfeiture and failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. Walker appeals only the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction of unlawful possession of a firearm.
D E C I S I O N
When a conviction is challenged for insufficiency of evidence, the appellate court reviews whether, when viewed in a light most favorable to the conviction, the evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to reach the verdict. State v. Spann, 574 N.W.2d 47, 54 (Minn. 1998). Circumstantial evidence is entitled to the same weight as other kinds of evidence. State v. Webb, 440 N.W. 2d 426, 430 (Minn. 1989). To sustain a conviction based entirely on circumstantial evidence, however, the evidence as a whole must exclude beyond a reasonable doubt any rational hypothesis other than guilt. State v. Anderson, 379 N.W. 2d 70, 75 (Minn. 1985).
Walker stipulated that as a convicted felon he was ineligible to possess a firearm under Minn. Stat. § 624.713, subd. 1 (b) (2000). Thus, the possession of the firearm is the disputed element. Because Walker did not have actual possession of the firearm, Walker's possession must be evaluated under the constructive-possession doctrine. To prove constructive possession, the state must show that either the police found the firearm in a place under Walker’s exclusive control to which other people did not normally have access, or, if the police found the firearm in a place to which others have access, that there is a strong probability inferable from other evidence that Walker was at the time consciously exercising control over it. State v. Florine, 303 Minn. 103, 105, 226 N.W.2d 609, 611 (1975) (applying constructive-possession doctrine to conviction for possession of drugs). For Walker’s conviction to stand, the evidence supporting it must lead directly to the conclusion that Walker constructively possessed the firearm and, exclude beyond a reasonable doubt, any other explanation.
The state’s evidence supports the jury’s conclusion that Walker had constructive possession of the revolver. The evidence established that Walker was the sole owner and driver of the vehicle for nearly a month before his arrest and that he was the only person in the vehicle when it was stopped. Even if the jury concluded that Walker had shared, rather than exclusive, control over the vehicle, the evidence amply establishes a strong probability, inferable from the evidence, that Walker was exercising control over it. The revolver was found in a vehicle that Walker owned, Walker was the only person in the vehicle, the strapped bag containing the revolver was immediately behind the center console within Walker’s easy reach, and police found a box of .38-caliber rounds in the center console located immediately next to Walker.
The evidence as a whole excludes any rational hypothesis that Walker did not possess the revolver. Thus, a reasonable jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Walker unlawfully possessed a firearm.
[*] Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.