The legal term possession refers to the control an individual or entity intentionally exercises toward something. An individual may have possession of any item, whether tangible or intangible, though possession of a thing does not necessarily mean ownership. To explore this concept, consider the following possession definition.

Definition of Possession


  1. The act or state of possessing something
  2. The actual holding or occupying of something with or without rights of ownership


1300-1350        Middle English  < Latin  possessiōn-

Criminal Possession

Possession refers to the control of something, such as real property, or personal property, and as such does not refer to anything illegal. Criminal possession, however, refers to the possession of property or items prohibited by law, such as stolen property, drugs, or illegal firearms. Prohibited items are defined under both federal and state law, and are generally items considered to be harmful to the public, such as unauthorized weapons, illicit drugs, and drug paraphernalia. Possession of stolen property is also classified as criminal possession.

Possession and Intent

Possession rises to the crime of criminal possession only if the individual had intent to possess the property. In other words, the individual must know that the item he possesses is a prohibited item, or that he is in possession of the item illegally.

Example 1:

John is in possession of a car he borrowed from his cousin, believing that his cousin owns the car. A police officer notices that the registration sticker on the car’s plate is out of date, and pulls John over. The officer then learns that the car was reported stolen a few weeks ago. If John can convince the court that he borrowed the car from his cousin, fully believing the cousin legally owned it, and that he had no intent to possess a stolen vehicle, he likely wouldn’t be held responsible.

Example 2:

Susan is arrested for being drunk in public. In searching her, the police officer finds four Ecstasy pills in her pocket. Susan claims her friend told her they were Tylenol, and so they are legal to possess. Ecstasy is a prohibited item, and therefore illegal to possess under any circumstances. Even though Susan tries to explain the pills away, saying she thought they were something else, she intended to have possession of them, and has committed criminal possession.

Possession of Marijuana

Though widely controversial, possession of marijuana is illegal according to federal law. Not only is it illegal to possess marijuana, but it is illegal to manufacture, sell, or distribute it. In recent years, some states have passed laws that allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, under strict circumstances. Other states have decriminalized the sale, possession, and use of small amounts of marijuana for all adults within the state.

Although federal law prohibits the sale, possession, and use of marijuana, individual states’ laws vary greatly. Because of this, penalties for possession of marijuana range from fines to prison terms. The severity of the penalty generally depends on the amount of marijuana found in the individual’s possession, his criminal history, and whether he engaged in the sale, distribution, or manufacture of the drug.

Possession of a Controlled Substance

Both federal and state laws make the willing possession of a controlled substance, such as marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, LSD, club drugs, and heroin, a criminal act. An individual charged with possession of a controlled substance in small amounts often faces misdemeanor charges, with a penalty such as a fine, probation, and perhaps community service.

Possession of a large amount of a controlled substance may result in felony charges of possession with intent to distribute, on the presumption that the individual intended to sell the drugs. Penalties for possession of a controlled substance in large amounts are more serious, usually resulting in a substantial amount of time in prison.

Controlled substances are not only those drugs commonly used for recreational purposes, but include other substances governed by law. These include prescription medications, anabolic steroids, and other substances.

Possession of Paraphernalia

Many people do not understand that possession of paraphernalia, or items related to controlled substances, is illegal. An individual can be arrested and prosecuted for possession of paraphernalia even if they have no actual drugs in their possession.

The term drug paraphernalia refers to things used to distribute, or to use, illegal substances. While the laws of each jurisdiction specifically list items considered to be drug paraphernalia, items specifically listed under federal law include:

  • Pipes made of stone, plastic, glass, ceramic, or wood
  • Water pipes and bongs
  • Roach clips, even those made by hand
  • Miniature spoons used for snorting or cooking controlled substances
  • Needles and syringes used for injecting controlled substances
  • Scales or balances used to weigh controlled substances
  • Chemicals used to dilute pure product for sale
  • Plastic bags used for packaging controlled substances for sale
  • Equipment used to manufacture or test the quality of controlled substances

Possession Cases

Cases of possession of a wide variety of items are brought before the court in every jurisdiction in the U.S. every day. These range from civil cases involving disputed possession of real or personal property, to cases of criminal possession of drugs and other items.

Possession of Paraphernalia

In 2013, Grammy Award nominee, rapper 2 Chainz, was pulled over by police for driving 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. After smelling marijuana in the vehicle, police searched the van, where they found a marijuana grinder, and traces of marijuana in a backpack. 2 Chainz was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of marijuana. Although the rapper expressed his dismay at being arrested for having a grinder in his possession, the item is, in fact, drug paraphernalia. 2 Chainz faces the possibility of being fined up to $1,000, and up to one year in jail.

Possession of Controlled Substance and Handguns

In 2015, Rapper Nelly’s bus was stopped for failure to display ID stickers. When Tennessee State Troopers approached the bus, they smelled marijuana. Upon search of the bus, methamphetamines were found along with several handguns. Nelly was charged with felony possession of drugs while a passenger on the bus, Brian Jones was charged with being a felon in possession of a handgun. Both men were arrested.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Personal Property – Any item that is moveable and not fixed to real property.
  • Real Property – Land and property attached or fixed directly to the land, including buildings and structures.