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Is Possession Really Nine Tenths Of The Law?


If you get arrested for a crime, it is best to exercise your right to remain silent until you have a chance to talk to a criminal defense lawyer about your case.  You will probably go into survival mode, and your mind will be swirling with every possible way that you can get out of your situation.  If you went to elementary school in the 1980s, you probably read the book The TV Kid, where the main character escapes death because, after getting bitten by a poisonous snake, he remembers that he once saw a movie on TV where a snakebite victim sucked the venom out of the wound, so he does the same with his wound.  In a criminal case, however, you should not attempt to apply wisdom you have heard in popular culture or in casual conversation.  You should not say anything until you have had a chance to meet with a professional attorney and discuss how the laws apply to your case.  Here, our Miami drug crimes defense lawyer explains how a defendant in a drug distribution case was not able to get acquitted by invoking the principle that “possession is nine tenths of the law.”

Where Does the Saying “Possession Is Nine Tenths of the Law” Come From?

Nowhere in the legal code does it explicitly state that “possession is nine tenths of the law.”  The saying is more of a proverb than a legal doctrine.  The contexts in which the idea that having something in your possession means that you legally own it are far removed from criminal law.  In fact, people usually invoke it in civil disputes over property.  For example, in ancient Rome, if there was a dispute over an item of property, the person currently holding the property had the right to keep it until a court issued a decision about who was the legal owner.  Today, in real estate disputes, people sometimes claim that, when they have been occupying a piece of land without the owner’s permission for a long time, the squatter becomes the legal owner, because if the owner really didn’t want the squatter to possess the property, they would have tried to evict them long ago.  The courts decide disputes of this sort on a case-by-case basis.  Likewise, if you do not have documentation that a previous owner gave you the right to possess a piece of real estate property, but you want to make your ownership official, you can file a quiet title action.

You Can Still Be Convicted of Theft, Even If the Stolen Item Is No Longer in Your Possession

“Possession is nine tenths of the law” is a legalese way of saying “finders keepers.”  Clearly, this principle does not apply in criminal cases related to theft.  If the police find a stolen item in your possession, “finders keepers” is not a valid defense in court.  Furthermore, you can still be charged with theft even if the stolen item is no longer in your possession when the police find it.  If you steal a wallet, remove the money and spend it, and throw the wallet in a trash can, the fact that the wallet was in a trash can when the police found it can be used as evidence against you in court.

Can Illegal Drugs be in Your Presence but Not in Your Possession?

In February 2023, a jury convicted Curtis Tyrone Johnson of drug distribution with intent to deliver.  One night in March 2022, as Johnson was walking toward his house, he saw that police were executing a search warrant there.  Johnson had been holding a bag and a gun, and he threw them into a church parking lot nearby.  When police arrested him, he asked whether possession was nine tenths of the law, perhaps planning to argue in his defense that since the drugs were not with him at the time of his arrest, there was no proof that they were his.  This defense did not work.

Conversely, if the police find drugs in your possession, it does not mean an automatic conviction.  You can argue that someone planted the drugs or that, pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, the police did not have the right to search your property.

Contact Our Drug Crimes Defense Attorneys

A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you if you are facing criminal charges after police found illegal drugs that they claim belong to you.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.



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