What is receiving stolen property?

Receiving stolen property charges consist of four elements: 1) the property is stolen 2) the property is received 3) the receiver knows it was stolen and 4) they intend to deprive the true owner of the property. State law will have varying definitions of knowledge, and some states will pursue receiving stolen property charges if a person even suspects the property is stolen.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Receiving stolen property is a crime that occurs when someone acquires goods with the knowledge that they have been stolen or unlawfully taken through theft. Of course, it’s hard to know what someone did or didn’t know. So the burden often falls on the defendant to prove they were unaware. All U.S. states have laws regarding the receipt of stolen property, and it can also be a federal crime if the items are involved in interstate commerce, if they were taken from the rightful owners, moved from one state to another, and have a value over $5,000.

What Are the Elements of Receiving Stolen Property?

On the state level, the offense typically consists of four elements: (1) stolen property (2) is received (3) by someone who knows it is stolen and (4) the receiver intends to deprive the rightful owner of the property. In most cases, receiving stolen property means that the accused defendants take physical possession of it. This could be business or personal property. Some state statutes only require the defendants to exercise control over property, which can mean paying for it or ordering the movement of property from one place to another. The accused person in the United States does not have to pay for the property. The fact that the property is stolen from the lawful owner is good enough. In some cases, there is no formal exchange of money. You could be “holding” it for the original thief.

The knowledge element is satisfied by actual knowledge, or, in most states, the belief that the property is stolen or illegally obtained. Criminal defense lawyers have different options to defend clients in this situation. Often, they come up against the reasonable person test. This test turns on whether or not a reasonable person would suspect that the goods were stolen. For example, if the price is “too good to be true” or if identifying marks (like serial numbers) are missing, that may be enough. In a minority of states, an accused can be convicted even if he did not know that the goods were stolen.

Finally, the state must prove that the accused intended to deprive the legal owners of the property. This element is met if the accused planned on selling the goods, giving them to anyone other than the original owner, or if the accused intended on demanding a reward to return it to the owner. If the accused obtained the goods to return them to their owner or to the police, then he has a legal defense for this element. In this case, it’s still best to have a criminal defense attorney when you surrender the property.

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What Kind of Punishment Should You Expect for Receiving Stolen Property?

If convicted, receiving stolen property is considered a wobbler offense. In short, it can be a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances and discretion of the judge. Sentences ranging from a fine or suspended jail sentence to up to ten years in jail and a fine. If there are separate offenses (both now or over time) being considered, your likelihood of a harsher punishment goes up. Some states base jail times on how much money the property is worth, with increased sentences for higher monetary values. Still, a single offense with murky evidence could be seen as more forgivable. Many courts may also award restitution to the victim in the amount of the actual damages plus additional punitive damages.

Some states have a separate but similar charge called possessing stolen property or possession of stolen property. The distinguishing factor here is when the accused learned the goods were stolen. If he knew at the time he acquired the property, then it is receipt of stolen property. It is possession of stolen property if he only learned the property was stolen after he obtained it. The receiver still has the responsibility to work with law enforcement to return the property as part of a strong defense.

In many states, the victim also has the option of bringing a civil action for conversion against the person who received the property. If the victim is successful in making this claim, he or she may demand either that the property is returned or that the defendant pays him the property’s full value at the time of its conversion. Some jurisdictions may allow for the victim to tack on additional penalties. For example, California law allows for civil penalties of up to three times the amount of the victim’s loss in addition to court costs and attorney’s fees.

The legal definition of receiving or possession of property that has been stolen may seem minor in legal terms. The important thing is that each defendant knows what they’re facing and what to do about it. While being honest and straightforward may be your best defense, an attorney can look at your individual circumstances. The way the same crime is regarded could be different if it involves government property or cultural property crime. A good defense attorney may also sew seeds of reasonable doubt depending on what they have to work with.

How Do You Handle a Theft Crime when You Didn’t Steal Anything?

The law does see a distinction between those who steal and those who receive or possess stolen property. The type of property and other factors come into consideration. A good attorney can review your case and tell if you’re at risk of felony receipt and what your next steps are.

If you have been charged with a stolen property crime, whether or not you were aware of its status, you should speak with a criminal defense attorney. An attorney can review your options with you and plan a course of action to resolve your criminal or civil case.

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