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The State’s Burden of Proof: Jennifer Ryan Harmon v. State of Alabama

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Starting its procedural journey in Randolph County, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals recently heard the appeal of Jennifer Ryan Harmon in the case of Jennifer Ryan Harmon v. State of Alabama. Harmon was convicted for possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Her appeal illustrates the elements of constructive possession, and the burden this places on the prosecution.

On June 6, 2017, a Randolph County police officer came across Harmon lying alone in the passenger seat of a parked car, which Harmon claimed belonged to her husband. The officer was searching for the husband, who had active warrants for his arrest. After receiving Harmon’s consent, the officer searched the car. The search revealed a gun in the backseat, and Harmon was subsequently arrested for possession of the firearm under §13A-11-63 of the Alabama Code, which bans the possession or sale of a short-barreled shotgun or rifle. The gun in question had no tag, and was not registered in anyone’s name, include Harmon or her husband. Harmon had no shells for the gun in her possession. Less than a mile from the car, the officer also found Harmon’s husband, walking away from the vehicle, and carrying a gas can. According to Harmon’s version of events, she had no knowledge of the gun, and was simply taking a nap in the car.

Harmon appealed her conviction, arguing that the State failed to prove she was in constructive possession of the illegal firearm. To sustain a conviction under §13A-11-63, the State must show that the firearm was in Harmon’s actual or potential physical control, that Harmon had intention to exercise dominion over the firearm, and that there were external manifestations of both the intent and control. Harmon asserted that these elements were not proven, and therefore her conviction could not be sustained.

In reviewing Harmon’s conviction, the Court noted that the presence of both the gun and Harmon in the car was not, by itself, enough to prove constructive possession. However, Harmon’s knowledge of the firearm could be inferred if Harmon possessed, controlled, or owned the vehicle where the firearm was found. Comparing this standard to the evidence presented, the Court found no showing that Harmon owned the vehicle, or that the vehicle was registered in her name. There was no showing that Harmon possessed the keys, either. Due to the absence of any showings of Harmon’s ownership, possession, or control of the vehicle, the Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, and instead rendered a judgment in Harmon’s favor.

Jennifer Ryan Harmon v. State of Alabama demonstrates the prosecution’s burden of proving all elements of a crime in order to convict. While the State has some authority to draw inference when circumstances suggest a certain conclusion, it is important to remember that the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the absence of evidence to prove all elements of the offense, a person cannot be convicted.

If you have a Federal Criminal case, a State Criminal case, a Municipal Case or a Family Law case, contact Joe Ingram or Ingram Law LLC at 205-335-2640. Get Relief Get Results
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