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What to do if stopped by customs with drugs

Posted on December 10th, 2015

Last Saturday in Philadelphia, twenty pounds of cocaine were seized by customs at the Philadelphia International Airport. By any account, this is a very large amount of cocaine. In this situation, the cocaine does not appear to have been taken from any single person, but rather from bags found in the cargo hold.

This raises the important question as to what to do when you are searched by customs officials. We must understand that our regular constitutional rights and freedom from being searched do not apply in an airport setting. No one has a constitutional right to board an airplane and therefore one must comply with the safety standards. Obviously, the best way not to be stopped with contraband when coming on or off an airplane is to make sure that one never has contraband. Sometimes, however, people mistakenly leave certain things in their luggage. 

What would be a legal defense in such a case? The first thing any government agent needs to prove is possession. Possession can be both direct possession and constructive possession.  Direct possession of narcotics is when narcotics are located directly on a person, for example, in their in their hand or their pockets. Just as damning is evidence of constructive possession. Constructive possession is when the facts surrounding the possession of the illegal items show that someone exercised dominion and control over that illegal product. A clear example of this in an airport is when one checks their own baggage verifying that the bags are theirs, that they packed the bags, and that nobody else touched their bags. Those bags are then put in the cargo of an airplane and searched afterwards. This is not direct possession. The person charged with the contraband in the luggage is not holding the luggage. However, in such a situation the government would argue this is “constructive possession.” The only person who had dominion and control over the contents of this luggage was the person who packed it and checked it in. This situation is enough for a person to be found guilty of possession of those items in their suitcase.

It is important when traveling to comply with all national and international laws. If you experience a problem coming through customs in any airport there can be serious legal consequences. Anything you say in this situation can be used against you. It is important not to make incriminating statements if you hope to be able to defend yourself from false accusations.

Your first line of action should be to contact an attorney to make the appropriate decisions. This should be done prior to making any statement, giving any admissions, or signing any forms.  R. Emmett Madden and the attorneys at The Philly Lawyers are experienced in dealing with those accused of both direct possession and constructive possession of narcotics and other contraband.