Not all Possession of a Controlled Substance is Unlawful

When I first started practicing 21 years ago, the most common criminal offense was Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance: Crack Cocaine. Around 2005, the primary drug switched to meth. These days, the leader is certainly prescribed medications of various sorts.

However, mere possession of a these types of controlled substances is not a crime.

For instance, I once successfully obtained a jury acquittal because my client did not know he had possession of a pain-pill. While boating, he had held a pain-pill for a friend in his water-proof container. After a day at the lake, his friend forgot to get his pain pill back. My client was later arrested during a traffic stop because he still had the pill. He did not know he still had it. In Alabama, possession cases are not strict-liability. After hearing from his friend, the jury found him not guilty.

Also, it is little known, but it is not unlawful to possess a controlled substance if you or a householder of yours has a valid prescription for the drug. See Section 20-2-51 of the Code of Alabama. It says a person lawfully possesses a controlled substance if they are a “ultimate user.” In another section, an “ultimate user” is defined as “a person who lawfully possesses a controlled substance for his or her own use or for the use of a member of his or her household or for administering to an animal owned by him or her or by a member of his or her household.”

So, whenever I have a client caught with a controlled substance, we always look to identify whether people in their household may have a presciption for that pill.

(And, of course, there is always the question whether you are in “possession.” See this article and also this article on constructive vs. actual possession. A pill in a floorboard doesn’t cut it.)