Jury Instructions That An Inference of Guilty Knowledge May Be Drawn from the Fact of Unexplained Possession of Stolen Goods
In Barnes v. United States, 412 U.S. 837, 37 L. Ed. 2d 380, 93 S. Ct. 2357 (1973), the petitioner was convicted in the United States District Court on two counts of possessing stolen United States Treasury checks, two counts of forging the checks, and two counts of uttering the checks knowing that they had been forged. Id. at 838.
Both the Ninth Circuit and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the convictions.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court first stated that this type of jury instruction satisfied the requirements of due process:
In the present case we deal with a traditional common-law inference deeply rooted in our law.
For centuries courts have instructed juries that an inference of guilty knowledge may be drawn from the fact of unexplained possession of stolen goods.
James Thayer, writing in his Preliminary Treatise on Evidence (1898), cited this inference as the descendant of a presumption "running through a dozen centuries."
... This longstanding and consistent judicial approval of the instruction, reflecting accumulated common experience, provides strong indication that the instruction comports with due process.
This impressive historical basis, however, is not in itself sufficient to establish the instruction's constitutionality.
Common- law inferences, like their statutory counterparts, must satisfy due process standards in light of present-day experience.
In the present case the challenged instruction only permitted the inference of guilt from unexplained possession of recently stolen property.
The evidence established that petitioner possessed recently stolen Treasury checks payable to persons he did not know, and it provided no plausible explanation for such possession consistent with innocence.
On the basis of this evidence alone common sense and experience tell us that petitioner must have known or been aware of the high probability that the checks were stolen.
Such evidence was clearly sufficient to enable the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that petitioner knew the checks were stolen.
Since the inference thus satisfies the reasonable doubt standard, the most stringent standard the Court has applied in judging permissive criminal law inferences, we conclude that it satisfies the requirements of due process. Id. at 843-46.
Accord Edwards v. State, 381 So. 2d 696, 697 (Fla. 1980) (indicating the inference arising from the unexplained possession of stolen property and jury instructions referring to it have been specifically approved by both Florida and federal courts).
The Court in Barnes additionally discussed the defendant's claims that the jury instruction improperly shifted to him the burden of proof, that the jury instruction violated his privilege against self-incrimination, and that the jury instruction was an improper comment on the defendant's failure to testify.
The Court indicated the instruction did not violate any of those principles. 412 U.S. at 846-47.