Socrates and Guilty Knowledge (a/k/a . . . In Which Socrates Would be Convicted of Possession in Virginia)

In The Apology, Socrates, on trial for his life, says of an unnamed politician: “This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing. On the other hand, I, equally ignorant, do not believe.” Socrates then concludes that he himself is the wisest man alive because he alone recognizes that he lacks any knowledge.  Socrates believed that people never truly know anything and instead only have a degree of confidence.

Socrates was then then sentenced to death.

According to Virginia Code § 18.2-250(A)(a): “It is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess a controlled substance.” The Virginia Court of Appeals recently got to test this code section’s definition of “knowingly” in Christian v. Commonwealth, 2012 Va. App. LEXIS 47 (2011).  Did the Virginia Court of Appeals accept the Socratic view of knowledge and undo, in some small part, the injustice once done to the wisest Athenian?  Of course not. That would be silly.

In Christian, a police officer found an off-white rock in an opaque bag in the defendant’s possession. Upon seeing the rock, the officer believed, correctly, that the rock was crack cocaine. The defendant told the officer that he found the bag on the ground, that he thought the rock was an illegal drug and that he thought he could sell it for a few dollars. The defense argued that he did not know that the rock was an illegal drug.  He just found it!  He was not a drug dealer himself and his mere hope that he could sell the rock as an illegal drug did not rise to the level of knowledge needed to convict him under Virginia Code § 18.2-250.  The trial court disagreed and he convicted of possession.  The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.  It agreed that knowledge of possession was present because: (i) the defendant attached value to the rock by keeping it instead of discarding it, (ii) the defendant intended to profit by selling the rock, (iii) the rock looked like crack cocaine, (iv) the rock was found in a park where drug offenses are known to occur, and (v) the defendant stated that he believed the rock was an illegal drug.

For Socrates, the defendant’s small scintilla of doubt would have made it impossible to prove that he had knowingly possessed a controlled substance.  For the Virginia Court of Appeals, however, it appears that the defendant’s belief that he knows something is sufficient to prove knowledge of possession.[1]


[1] Knowledge of something may very well be the actual standard in Virginia.  In the two unpublished cases cited in Christian, the defendants suspected that drugs were involved, but did not firmly believe so one way or another.  In the first case, the defendant disposed of a vile that he hoped contained cocaine because he, incorrectly, determined that it did not. Whitehead v. Commonwealth,Record No. 0908-93-1, 1995 Va. App. LEXIS 191 (1995).  The court held that he did not know he possessed cocaine; indeed, if he knew that he possessed it, he would have kept the vile. Similarly, in the second case, the defendant suspected that packages he delivered contained drugs, but had not examined their contents and had not reached a firm conclusion either way. Gaither v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0610-96-2, 1997 Va. App. LEXIS 424 (Va. Ct. App. June 24, 1997).  The court held that he did not know he possessed a controlled substance.