When a crime occurs, the proper venue in which to prosecute the offense is generally the county where the crime was committed. However, in many cases part of a crime is committed in one county and part is committed in another county. The California Supreme Court recently held in People v. Thomas that a defendant may be prosecuted for possession for sale of a controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in one county when he stores drugs and firearms in another county if the effects of the crime would be felt in the first county.
In People v. Thomas the Defendant, a convicted felon, lived, sold drugs, and belonged to a gang in Madera County. He also possessed the keys and receipt for a storage locker in neighboring Fresno County. Upon a legal search, police discovered a large amount of cocaine, cash, and a firearm in the locker. The Defendant was prosecuted and convicted in Madera County, but on appeal argued that Fresno County was the only proper venue to try his case because that was where the drugs were located. The California Supreme Court disagreed and held that Madera County was also a proper venue for the case.
California Penal Code Section 781 provides that when parts of an offense are committed in more than one county or when the acts or effects of the crime or necessary to its commission take place in more than one county, the crime may be prosecuted in the superior court of any of the counties involved.
The Court explained that venue provisions in criminal proceedings served a number of purposes. One important purpose of venue provisions is promoting convenience for both parties to obtain evidence and secure witnesses’ presence. Venue provisions also protect the defendant by preventing unfairness and hardship that may be present if a defendant were to be tried in a remote location. Finally, venue provisions also protect the interests of the place where the crime was committed, allowing the community to sit in judgment for a crime that happened in its area.
The Court concluded that Madera County was the proper venue in this case for several reasons. First, even though the drugs and firearm were located in Fresno County, by having keys and receipts to a storage locker, the Defendant had “constructive” possession of the drugs and firearm in Madera County. Under California case law, an individual has constructive possession over a controlled substance if he or she maintains some kind of control or right to control contraband that is not in his or her actual possession.
Second, under Section 781, Madera was a proper venue because the effects of the unlawful possession of the drugs and gun would be felt in Madera County and Madera was the center of Defendant’s drug operation. The Defendant also committed preparatory acts in Madera County including getting a second apartment in Madera that Defendant did not disclose to his parole officer, as well as securing two cell phones and a pager with which to conduct his drug business.
Finally, Madera is a proper venue because it promotes the convenience of both parties, since most of the witnesses lived in either Madera or Fresno. It also promotes the interest of the community in which the drugs were going to be sold (Madera). The court stated that the interests of Madera County, where the drugs were to be sold, were at least as strong as those of Fresno County, where the drugs and firearm were stored.
Prosecutors may use a choice in venue as part of their strategy if they believe that trying the case in one county over another may be more favorable to their side. If you are facing possible criminal charges, the California criminal defense lawyer at the Johnson Criminal Law Group will discuss your case and venue options and strategies. Please call us today.