It’s a common idiom, but exactly what does “possession is 9/10 of the law” mean in actual legal terms? Or does it have any legal merit at all?
The phrase essentially means that when you physically possess something you have a stronger legal claim to it than someone who just claims ownership of it. Another way to say this is that custody presumes ownership.
In still other words, it’s the assumption that if you have physical custody of something (possession), then the chances are better than average that it is, in fact, yours.
It is typically used in reference to getting caught for committing a crime. If you are caught by the police while carrying evidence, such as drugs or weapons, people might say “possession is nine-tenths of the law” out of a belief that you have a 90% (because 9/10 (or “nine tenths”) equals 90%) chance of being accused and convicted of committing the crime. Conversely, criminals have commonly used this phrase to persuade someone to commit a crime, stating that if they hide or destroy the evidence, there is a high likelihood of not getting accused or convicted. But are these criminals actually correct? Or is this phrase completely false? Let’s keep learning more about this subject.
Origins of Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law
Some think the expression “possession is 9/10 of the law” came from the old Scottish proverb that says “possession is eleven points in the law, and they say they are but twelve.”
And the earliest written version of it dates back to 1616 when Thomas Draxe wrote “possession is nine points of the Law” in his Bibliotheca Scholastica. This referred to the fact that possession satisfied nine of the eleven points that constituted proof of ownership at the time.
The saying eventually evolved into what we now know as “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
But is it Actual Law?
No, there is no law stating that possession accounts for 90 percent of all the evidence in any given case. In fact, the prison population contains countless people who believed this phrase was legally true. However, you might be interested to know that there are California laws concerning adverse possession that come pretty close to this being a true law.
Adverse possession allows a trespasser to gain legal title over someone else’s land. But they have to prove they’ve openly possessed and used the property for a specific amount of time (five years) and they have to have paid taxes on it during that time.
Adverse possession generally falls under the jurisdiction of civil courts, not criminal.
Criminal Possession of Drugs or Weapons
Possession is often an element of criminal charges related to drugs and/or weapons. But there is no criminal statute that defines possession by the 9/10 rule. In criminal law, possession is either actual possession or constructive possession.
Actual possession means you were physically holding something, or that thing was physically on your person (like in the pocket of a piece of clothing).
Constructive possession means you had immediate access to something (like under the seat or in the glove box of a car, or in your home).
There are legal defenses to the criminal charges of possession of illegal drugs and to the possession of guns or other weapons. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can advise you on the best strategy to fight these charges.
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Mark Broughton is a criminal defense lawyer in Fresno who will fight to get you the best possible outcome. In his 40+ years of experience, he has conducted trials in both state and Federal Court. He sees every individual’s situation with compassion and empathy. And he believes that every person has the right to a fair trial and is innocent until proven guilty.