In State v. Hotchkiss, the WA Court of Appeals held that, despite the corpus delicti defense, the discovery of 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash during a search of the defendant’s home, provided sufficient corroborating evidence of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.
Law enforcement officers executed a search warrant on Hotchkiss’s residence in Vancouver. During the search, Hotchkiss admitted that he had an “8-ball” – approximately 3.8 grams – of methamphetamine in a safe and provided the officers with the code. He also stated that he procured about one 8-ball of methamphetamine every day and broke it down, and estimated that he had about 10 customers. Inside the safe, officers found 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash.
The State charged Hotchkiss with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver – methamphetamine. At a bench trial, officers testified about finding the methamphetamine and cash and about Hotchkiss’s statement that he had 10 methamphetamine customers. After the State rested, Hotchkiss requested that the trial court disregard the testimony regarding his incriminating statement under the corpus delicti rule because there was insufficient evidence corroborating his statement. The court reserved its ruling on the corpus delicti issue.
Hotchkiss then testified that he and a woman who lived with him used three or four grams of methamphetamine per day. He also testified that the cash in the safe came from other people living at his residence, who paid rent of $1,150 per month in cash, and from his employment. He claimed that any statement he made to the officers about selling methamphetamine referred to his actions 20 years earlier.
On rebuttal, an officer with extensive experience dealing with methamphetamine users
and sellers testified that a typical methamphetamine dose is 0.2 to 0.4 grams. He also testified that it would be very rare that someone would possess eight grams of methamphetamine solely for personal use.
The trial court found that the quantity of methamphetamine in Hotchkiss’s possession
combined with the amount of cash recovered with the drugs was sufficient corroborating
evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule. The court then found Hotchkiss guilty of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Hotchkiss appeals his conviction.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that the corpus delicti rule prevents the State from establishing that a crime occurred solely based on the defendant’s incriminating statement. The State must present corroborating evidence independent of the incriminating statement that the charged crime occurred. Without such corroborating evidence, the defendant’s statement alone is insufficient to support a conviction.
The Court then addressed the question of whether there was enough independent evidence to support the conviction for possession of methampetamine with intent to deliver.
“The general rule is that mere possession of a controlled substance, including quantities greater than needed for personal use, is not sufficient to support an inference of intent to deliver,” said the Court. Here, the State presented evidence that (1) Hotchkiss had 8.1 grams of methamphetamine in his possession; (2) given an average dose size of 0.2 to 0.4 grams, such an amount typically would produce 20 to 40 doses; and (3) it would be very rare for a person to possess that amount merely for personal use.
The Court reasoned that under the general rule, this evidence standing alone would not be sufficient either to convict Hotchkiss of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver or to provide corroborating evidence under the corpus delicti rule.
“But the State presented evidence of an additional factor suggestive of intent to deliver –
$2,150 of cash in Hotchkiss’s safe next to the methamphetamine,” said the Court. “This methamphetamine and cash evidence would be sufficient to support a conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.”
With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State satisfied the corpus delicti rule and affirmed Hotchkiss’ conviction of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.
My opinion? Corpus Delicti is a tricky defense. It usually works best in cases where there is a gaping hole between the corroborating evidence and the defendant’s statements.
For example, let’s say that police received a 911 call about a red truck driving around in your neighborhood swerving in an out of traffic. The police respond to the call, drive to your neighborhood, and look a for a red truck. They find one parked at your home. They knock on your door. You open the door. You’re intoxicated from drinking alcohol.
“Were you driving?” asked the police.
“Yes,” you say. Police immediately arrest you for DUI.
Corpus delicti would be the appropriate defense in a case like this. Under our current DUI laws, the State must prove that not only were you driving that particular red truck, but that you were under the influence of alcohol when driving. In short, corpus delicti ensures that your statements and admission shall not be used against you in cases where there is a lack of independent evidence supporting your statements.
Please contact my office if you, a family member of friend face criminal charges with weak and/or questionable evidence supporting the charges. No matter what a person’s admissions are, we have the constitutional right to question the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the charges and perhaps argue the corpus delicti defense.