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Do DCS and PCS now merge?

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This wikilog article is a draft, it was not published yet.

by: Ryan Scott • December 10, 2018 • no comments

In 1991, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that Delivery of a Controlled Substance (DCS) and Possession of a Controlled Substance (PCS) do not merge, because each crime contains an element the other does not. Specifically, a person can deliver a controlled substance (which, by statute, includes "attempted delivery") but not simultaneously possess the controlled substance. State v. Sargent, 110 Or App 194 (1991).

In Oregon law, merger refers to the combination of two or more guilty verdicts into a single conviction. If DCS and PCS were to merge, the benefits are real but relatively marginal. Merger of those two crimes would be unlikely to reduce the defendant's time in custody, but it could (1) reduce fines and fees, (2) possibly help with expungement many, many years later and (3) reduce the defendant's criminal history score, in case he or she is charged with more crimes in the future. Generally speaking, though, it's always better to have fewer convictions. Most important of all, however, is that it would require prosecutors to improve their offers pre-trial. A prosecutor who makes no concessions on the DCS because he or she is already agreeing to dismiss the PCS may be pressured to make additional concessions to keep a case from going to trial, since, if the counts merge, the PCS is going away anyway.

There are four different ways for crimes to merge, but the one most relevant to the Sargent analysis is whether, by committing DCS, a person necessarily commits PCS. If yes, then they merge. If not, then they don't.

You might think, of course you have to be guilty of PCS when you commit DCS. You've got to have/possess the drugs to deliver them, don't you?

Not according to the Sargent court. The reason is because of how "delivery" is defined in Oregon law.

ORS 475.005 defines "delivery" as "the actual, constructive or attempted transfer, other than by administering or dispensing, from one person to another of a controlled substance, whether or not there is an agency relationship."

"Attempted" is the key word here. The Sargent court determined that a person could "attempt a delivery" and thus be guilty of DCS if they solicit someone else to deliver drugs. Consequently, the court held:

We conclude that, if a person solicits another to engage in conduct constituting an element of the crime of delivery, e.g., to provide to the person a controlled substance for the purpose of distribution to third parties, the person has taken a substantial step toward committing the crime of attempted delivery under ORS 475.992(1). Under that statute, the conduct constitutes delivery. Consequently, possession and delivery do not merge as a matter of law, because it is possible to commit the crime of delivery without having a possessory interest in the controlled substance. [Bold added.]

The key thing to note is that the opinion hinges on the defendant soliciting a third party to delivery drugs, which amounts to an attempted delivery. This is distinct from a theory of accomplice liability. If a defendant is convicted as an accomplice to another person's delivery and possession of drugs, he'd still be guilty of possession even if he didn't personally possess the drugs themselves.

The Oregon Supreme Court said as much in the context of forgery in State v. Blake, 348 Or 95 (2010):

Accomplice liability makes a person who aids or abets a crime liable for that crime even though the accomplice may not have committed any of the acts that the crime entails. See ORS 161.155(2)(b) (criminal liability for aiding and abetting another person in planning or committing a crime). Because the principal who utters a forged instrument also necessarily possesses it, a person who aids and abets the principal in the crime of forgery by definition also aids and abets the principal in the crime of criminal possession of a forged instrument. An accomplice who is liable for forgery is also liable for criminal possession of a forged instrument."

Blake didn't overrule Sargent because unlike DCS, a person could not be convicted of "uttering" a forged instrument merely by attempting to do so. If they couldn't be convicted merely for the attempt, then they couldn't be convicted for mere solicitation.

Even before the events of last week, the Sargent holding was based on a questionable view of the relevant legislative history, specifically whether or not the legislature intended that solicitation by itself amounted to an attempt. There was a subsequent COA case from 2005 that went into the problems with the Sargent reading of legislative history, but reaffirmed Sargent anyway, in part because no one was arguing at that time Sargent was wrong decided. That case is State v. Johnson, 202 Or App 478 (2005).

Skip to December 2018, and the attempted aggravated murder/solicitation to commit aggravated murder case State v. Kimbrough, 364 Or 66 (2018). The bottom line is that the court held that solicitation to commit a crime did not amount to an attempt to commit the crime, unless the defendant intended to commit the crime also. The Supreme Court held:

Thus, the rule is that to be guilty of attempt, the defendant must personally engage in conduct that constitutes a substantial step, and that substantial step must be toward a crime that the defendant intends to participate in himself.

Kimbrough is a deep-dive into legislative history that does need not to be summarized here. What is important to note is that the holding of Sargent that DCS and PCS do not merge depended on the COA's conclusion that solicitation to deliver drugs constituted an attempt to deliver drugs. The OSC has now held that solicitation is insufficient to constitute attempted delivery, unless the defendant is going to participate, in which case the defendant himself is in possession of those drugs, either as a principal or as an accomplice.

If you are a defense attorney in Oregon, preserving this issue after trial is simple. You can write a memo that cites to the cases above or, if your court tolerates informality, you can simply give them a copy of the blog post. In my experience, most trial judges would not merge, until Sargent is explicitly overruled. But as long as you preserve the issue, an appellate attorney can do the heavy lifting.