Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You Can't Steal Something From Someone Who Doesn't Own It.

That self-evident proposition was reaffirmed in State v. Bennett, wherein the Court vacated a conviction for grand theft. The tricky part was figuring out who was the owner.

Bennett purchased a travel trailer from LeFave, then moved out of state with the trailer but without fully paying for it. Bennett and LeFave had an agreement that Bennett could take possession of the trailer and would make payments. LeFave, however, did not keep a security interest in the trailer. Bennett was later charged with grand theft under I.C. §§ 18-2403(1) and 18-2407(1)(b) and with being a persistent violator. A jury found Bennett guilty of grand theft and he later pleaded guilty to the persistent violator allegation.

The Supreme Court vacated the conviction. It reasoned that in order for Bennett to have committed the crime, "LeFave must have been the 'owner' of the trailer" because I.C. § 18-2403(1) states that: "A person steals property and commits theft when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner thereof." (Emphasis in original.) An "owner" is "any person who has a right to possession thereof superior to that of the taker, obtainer or withholder." Therefore, the State was required to prove LeFave had a possessory right in the trailer superior to Bennett's right to possess.

However, since LeFave delivered the trailer to Bennett without retaining any legally supported secured interest, it was Bennett who had the superior possessory right. Thus, LeFave was not the "owner" of the trailer under I.C. § 18-2403(1) and the evidence was insufficient to convict. As an added bonus, the persistent violator conviction was also vacated.

This case is a good reminder to not assume anything when you're putting together a defense. Interestingly, the defense at trial was different from the Supreme Court's reasoning. Bennett argued that there was insufficient evidence that the amount owed on the trailer was over $1000, thus conceding a petit theft. (Luckily, the sufficiency claim was reviewable on appeal even under State v. Perry because Bennett's unwaived constitutional right to have the state prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt was plainly violated.)

Congratulations to Heather Crawford and Sara Thomas from SAPD!

The opinion is here:

1 comment:

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