• Speak with An Experienced Defense Attorney Today
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law—What Does This Mean?

This popular legal phrase is an expression meaning that ownership is easier to maintain if a person has possession of something and difficult to enforce if a person does not.

For example, the shoes you’re wearing are presumed to be yours, unless someone can prove otherwise.

Modern possession laws originated from ancient Roman doctrines and were later brought to the American colonies by the British. Not surprisingly, the historical notions of possession have expanded over time.

Depending on how and when it is used, the term possession has a variety of possible meanings. Specifically, possession often plays a critical role in criminal cases involving drugs and weapons.


Importantly, the expression “possession is nine-tenths of the law” isn’t literally true—it is a rule of force and, perhaps, a truism of human nature, but it is not a law.

A person in mere possession of something does not, necessarily, have a nine times greater claim to the object over someone else.

The Denver defense lawyers from Wolf Law explore the complex topic of possession in more detail below.

Possession Does Not Mean Ownership

Just because a person possesses something, that doesn’t mean they own it. However, it is often assumed that a person in possession of something is the most likely owner…but this isn’t always the case.

For example: If you own a car and lend it to a friend, your friend is in possession of the car, but lending the car to them does not transfer ownership of the vehicle.

For this reason (and many others!), possession laws are complicated, even for attorneys and judges. If you find yourself facing drug possession charges in the greater Denver area, it’s in your best interest to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

Different Types of Possession

Depending on how and when it is used, the term possession has a variety of possible meanings. The meaning of possession can be modified by terms that describe different types of possession.

Actual Possession

Also referred to as possession in fact, actual possession is how most of us would describe it: having physical custody or control of an object. For example, a person wearing a watch has actual possession of the watch around his wrist.

Constructive Possession

Constructive possession is often involved in criminal cases. This legal theory expands the meaning of possession so that it may include items not in physical contact with the possessor.

Constructive possession involves knowledge of an object plus the ability to control the object, even if the possessor is not physically in contact with the object.

For example, items left in a bank safety deposit box are possessed by the individual who put them there; he knows about the items and may exercise control over them. The items are not possessed by the bank, even though the bank has actual physical custody of the safety deposit box.

Criminal Possession

Federal and state statutes make possession of many dangerous or undesirable items criminal (e.g., narcotics, certain types of guns, stolen property, etc.).

Making possession a crime gave law enforcement and prosecutors considerable freedom to enforce arrests and convictions without proving the use or sale of the objects or items prohibited.

Joint Possession

Joint possession occurs when two or more people share control of an illegal object or items. For example, if two people live together and drugs are found inside their home, both parties can be held responsible.

Possession and Intent

Possession and intent are common focal points in drug-related charges. For example, the possession of a controlled substance with the intent to sell or distribute those drugs is a major offense, particularly if those drugs are sold or distributed to minors.


In criminal cases, possession charges may also involve conscious possession. Conscious possession requires that the individual is aware the items are illegal and they are possessed by the individual aware of them.

For example, a defendant found in possession of an illegal drug may avoid conviction if the defense can prove the defendant believed the drug was legal at the time.

Defending Possession Charges in Denver

Working with an experienced criminal defense lawyer is the first step toward understanding and defending a particular possession charge. Like all criminal cases, your defense attorney will build a strategy based on the specific facts of your case.

Common defense strategies for possession charges might include:

  • A valid prescription to possess the drug(s)
  • The defendant was unaware that the drugs were illegal
  • An illegal search or seizure was conducted by the police
  • The defendant did not have control over the illegal item(s) in question
  • The drugs were planted on the defendant

At Wolf Law, we can help you understand your options, navigate the legal process, and protect your rights.

To schedule a free initial consultation with the Wolf Law team in Denver, call 720-479-8574. You can also fill out a contact form online, or stay up to date with Wolf Law by following and liking our Facebook page.