Can A Passenger Be Charged With Felony Drug Possession?

Due to the large amounts of marijuana and other drugs moving on the Interstate from Colorado to “destination cities,” many drivers traveling through Nebraska are stopped and their vehicles are searched.

Those who are stopped and searched on Interstate 80 often feel they were targeted and profiled based on their out-of-state license plates.

Everyone Knows About the Dope

Often in Nebraska when a vehicle is searched and marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin is found, every occupant – not just the driver – is charged with a crime. Police and prosecutors believe that because there are illegal drugs somewhere in the car, everyone in the vehicle must have known about them. Sometimes this is true, but often it is not.

Unfortunately, a passenger who did not know about the illegal drugs can be arrested and charged with felony possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the government must show that each individual charged with the crime knew the vehicle was transporting illegal drugs and had an intent to distribute those drugs.

How Cops Find Evidence of Knowledge

So how do police prove each passenger knew there were drugs in the car? This is the question criminal defense attorneys often ask. Law enforcement will continue to investigate and attempt to get warrants for phone searches and other electronic devices to determine which occupants knew there were narcotics in the vehicle.

After the arrest, police often interrogate all passengers separately in hopes of getting them to snitch on each other. In some cases, one passenger will admit that everyone knew about the narcotics. Other times, no one says anything.

These cases become more difficult for passengers when law enforcement smells the odor of marijuana in the vehicle and/or notices small amounts of marijuana in plain view. For example, there may be visible traces of the drug on the floorboards or a pipe in the center console. In these cases, passengers often argue that while they knew there was a user amount of marijuana in the vehicle, they did not know that the driver was transporting several pounds of pot or other illegal drugs.

Defenses for Passengers

Fortunately, all passengers in a vehicle have the right to challenge the reason for a traffic stop. If law enforcement unlawfully stopped the vehicle, then all persons traveling in the vehicle have the right to have the evidence suppressed.

In cases where courts find that police did not violate the passengers’ Fourth Amendment rights during the stop, detention, and search of the vehicle, the passenger may still have a valid argument that he or she was unaware of the drugs in the trunk.

Occasionally these cases go to a jury trial and in some cases the driver admits the drugs were his or hers and the passenger knew nothing about them. In other cases where the driver denies responsibility, the other passengers claim the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she knew there were large amount of marijuana or other narcotics in the trunk.

While guilt by association is below the legal standard, in any traffic stop where drugs are found, all passengers can be arrested and charged. In some cases, passengers admit that they knew there were drugs in the car, but they didn’t have any other way to get to their destination—so they stayed in the car. This is often known as the “choice of evils defense” and it usually fails. In no situation is knowingly travelling with someone who is transporting drugs okay.

What to Do

If you believe you or a loved one may be the victim of an illegal stop, search, or seizure, or you need to fight felony drug charges in state or federal courts, contact Berry Law.

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