The crimes of theft and shoplifting defined, plus case examples.
Theft (or larceny) is an umbrella term that applies to various methods of stealing another’s personal property with the “specific intent to permanently deprive them of possession” — in other words, you’re not just borrowing the item. (See General Intent Crimes vs. Specific Intent Crimes.) Theft offenses can range from shoplifting a candy bar, to stealing a car, even to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. When theft involves large amounts of money, certain types of property, or property that is taken in a certain way, it might be classified as grand theft. Read on to learn more about theft and related crimes.
Theft vs. Embezzlement vs. Fraud
In addition to the standard form of theft — simply carrying off someone else’s property — two other common forms of theft are:
- embezzlement, in which an employee or other personal representative diverts money or property intended for the employer or principal to the employee’s or personal representative’s personal use, and
- fraud (or false pretenses), which typically occurs when a thief tricks a victim into voluntarily handing over money or property.
To learn more about embezzlement and fraud crimes, including state specific information, see Embezzlement Crimes and Penalties, and Fraud and Financial Crimes.
Theft: Case Example 1
Facts: Joy Rider sees a new Lexus parked on a residential street. The doors are unlocked and the keys are in the ignition. Never having driven a Lexus, Joy impulsively gets behind the wheel. Joy drives around for about ten minutes and leaves the car a block away from where she found it.
Verdict: Joy is probably not guilty of car theft. To convict Joy of theft, a prosecutor would have to prove that Joy took the car with the specific intent of permanently depriving the car’s owner of possession. Since Joy returned the car near to where she found it a short time after taking it, she probably had no such intent. Most states have enacted a less serious crime of joyriding (or operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent) to cover these types of situations.
Theft: Case Example 2
Facts: N. V. Uss is furious to learn that his ex-girlfriend has become engaged to another man. One day, Uss sees his ex-girlfriend sitting at a table in a restaurant, showing her engagement ring to a companion. Uss rushes up to the table, grabs the ring, runs outside, and throws the ring into a sewer pipe. The ring is never found.
Verdict: Uss is likely guilty of theft of the ring. The fact that Uss did not keep the ring for himself is irrelevant. The gist of theft is permanently depriving a victim of the property that was stolen. Since Uss’s actions suggest that Uss intended his ex-girlfriend to do without the ring permanently, Uss is guilty of theft.
Theft: Case Example 3
Facts: Em Bezzler works behind the counter at an ice cream shop. Over a period of weeks, Em pocketed part of the money that customers gave her. Em hid her activities from the shop owner by failing to ring up some ice cream sales. Finally, the shop owner catches on, fires Em, and starts to call the police. Em immediately offers to return all the money that she took, with interest.
Verdict: Even if Em fully pays back the shop owner, Em is still guilty of embezzlement. Returning stolen property may count in a defendant’s favor at the time of sentencing, but it is no defense to a theft or embezzlement charge. Em is guilty of theft because the circumstances suggest that she intended to permanently deprive the shop owner of the money at the time she took it.
Grand theft is the equivalent of first degree theft. Theft can be categorized as grand theft — and therefore deemed a more serious offense — for a variety of reasons. Laws in many states consider a theft to be grand theft when:
- The property taken is worth more than a minimum amount, perhaps $500-$1,000 depending on the state.
- Property is taken directly from a person, but by means other than force or fear. (If force or fear were used, the crime would be robbery.) An example would be picking the pocket of an unsuspecting victim.
- Particular types of property are taken. For example, the theft of cars and some types of animals is often grand theft regardless of their actual market value.
A theft that does not qualify as a grand theft is petty, or second degree, theft.
Theft Involving Lost or Stolen Property
Lost property. Keeping lost property can qualify as theft if the finder could reasonably return the property to its owner. For example, if Sue is bicycling along a deserted lane and sees a $100 bill floating on a puddle next to the curb, Sue would not be guilty of theft if she kept it. However, it’s different if, as she’s bicycling, Sue sees Charles drop a $100 bill as Charles is getting out of the car. Charles is unaware that he has dropped the money and begins to walk away. If Sue rides over, picks up the $100 bill and keeps it, Sue has committed theft. Since Sue knows that the money belongs to Charles, and she has a reasonable opportunity to return it to him, Sue commits theft by not attempting to return the money to Charles. From a legal standpoint, Sue’s keeping the money when she could easily return it to its rightful owner is what is known as a “constructive” taking.
Stolen property. Buying or keeping stolen property usually translates into a crime popularly known as receiving stolen goods. To convict a defendant of receiving stolen goods, the government has to prove that property in the defendant’s possession was stolen, and that the defendant acquired the property knowing that it was stolen. As is typical when a statute requires proof of knowledge and other state of mind elements, the government usually has to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove a defendant’s knowledge that property had been stolen. Usually, the government’s case relies on evidence that would have alerted any reasonable person that the items were hot.
Receiving Stolen Property: Case Example
Facts: Hu Gnu is an avid collector of rock-and-roll memorabilia, and he subscribes to a number of computer websites devoted to such items. A few days after a theft of rock-and-roll items from a museum is widely reported on TV and in newspapers in Hu’s hometown, Hu receives an email message offering to sell a collection of Beatles memorabilia at a very low price. The seller claims that a quick sale is necessary because the seller has suffered a number of business losses. In fact, the Beatles items were stolen from the museum. Hu buys the Beatles items.
verdict: Hu could be convicted of receiving stolen property. That’s because circumstantial evidence suggests that Hu knew that he was buying hot merchandise. Hu is an experienced collector, the prices were very low, and the offer came on the heels of a widely reported museum theft.
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