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McCandless v. Beyer

argued: October 6, 1987.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (Camden), D.C. Civ. No. 85-5140.

Becker, Scirica, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Rosenn


ROSENN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal from a denial of habeas corpus relief requires us to examine the constitutionality of a New Jersey statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-2b, which permits a jury to presume, unless the defendant comes forward with evidence to the contrary, the absence of a carrying permit from the possession of a firearm. Based upon the record before us, we conclude that there is a rational connection between the basic fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed, and that the latter is more likely than not to flow from the former. Therefore, we agree with the United States District Court's holding that the permissive presumption contained in N.J.S.A. 2C:39-2b did not deny the appellant-petitioner due process of law. We will affirm the denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.


On April 6, 1980, Officer Grunow, a New Jersey municipal police officer, detained an automobile driven by the petitioner and codefendant Patrick Hartey. A subsequent search of the vehicle disclosed two wallets containing credit cards bearing the names of George Adams and Jeffrey Cromer, and a BB gun.*fn1 Neither McCandless nor Hartey produced a carrying permit for the handgun.

A state court jury convicted petitioner of possession of a handgun without a permit and of possession of stolen credit cards. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed, holding that N.J.S.A. 2C:39-2b did not violate due process. State v. McCandless, 190 N.J. Super. 75, 461 A.2d 1205 (App. Div. 1983). The court observed that the permissive nature of the presumption safeguarded the role of the factfinder, and that a rational nexus existed between the proven and presumed facts. Id. at 1207-1208. After the Supreme Court of New Jersey denied his petition for certification, McCandless filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. Relying primarily upon the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in State v. Ingram, 98 N.J. 489, 488 A.2d 545 (1985), the district court upheld the constitutionality of the presumption. This appeal followed.


In determining whether the district court erred in formulating or applying a legal precept, our review is plenary. United States v. Adams, 759 F.2d 1099, 1106 (3d Cir. 1985). The due process clause of the fourteenth amendment mandates that before a criminal defendant can be convicted, the state must prove every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368, 90 S. Ct. 1068 (1969). The state, however, may be assisted in fulfilling its burden of proof by inferences and presumptions, evidentiary devices which permit the factfinder to determine the existence of an "ultimate" fact from the existence of one or more "basic" facts. See Barnes v. United States, 412 U.S. 837, 37 L. Ed. 2d 380, 93 S. Ct. 2357 (1973).

Courts have identified two types of presumptions distinguishable by the extent to which each constrains a factfinder's ability to freely assess the evidence. The first, or mandatory presumption, requires a trier to find an ultimate fact upon proof of a basic one, unless the defendant offers evidence to rebut the connection. See Turner v. United States, 396 U.S. 398, 24 L. Ed. 2d 610, 90 S. Ct. 642 (1970). In assessing the constitutionality of a mandatory presumption, a court must determine whether the coincidence of facts is compelled by the course of human experience. See Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 159-160, 60 L. Ed. 2d 777, 99 S. Ct. 2213 (1978). Because the factfinder is forced to apply the presumption and may not reject it, regardless of the factfinder's independent evaluation of the evidence presented at trial, the Court has held it irrelevant in analyzing a mandatory presumption that there is ample evidence in the record other than the presumption to support the conviction. Id. at 160. The second, or permissive presumption, permits, but does not compel a factfinder to presume an ultimate fact from proof of a basic one.*fn2 Id. at 157. A permissive presumption does not offend due process if "there is a 'rational connection' between the basic facts and the ultimate fact presumed, and the latter is 'more likely than not to flow from' the former." Id. at 165 (quoting Tot v. United States, 319 U.S. 463, 467, 87 L. Ed. 1519, 63 S. Ct. 1241 (1943), and Leary v. United States, 395 U.S. 6, 36, 23 L. Ed. 2d 57, 89 S. Ct. 1532 (1969)). The ultimate test of a device's constitutional validity is that it "must not undermine the factfinder's responsibility at trial, based on evidence adduced by the State, to find the ultimate facts beyond a reasonable doubt." Ulster County, 442 U.S. at 156. A permissive presumption perpetuates a state's burden to prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 703 n. 31, 44 L. Ed. 2d 508, 95 S. Ct. 1881 . A court should not assess the constitutionality of a permissive inference on its face; instead, it must evaluate a presumption's rationality in light of all the facts adduced at trial. Ulster County, 442 U.S. at 162-163.


N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b prohibits possession of a firearm without first obtaining a permit to carry it:

b. Handguns. Any person who knowingly has in his possession any handgun, including any antique handgun without first having obtained a permit to carry the same as provided in section ...

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