CAN AN INDIVIDUAL BE GUILTY OF THEFT NOT KNOWING THAT THE PROPERTY HE OR SHE POSSESSES IS STOLEN?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Taylor, 401 P.3d 632 (Kan. Ct. App. 2017).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can an individual be guilty of theft not knowing that the property he or she possesses is stolen?
This case explored the issue of whether an individual could be found guilty of theft not knowing that the property he or she possessed was stolen. In exploring this issue, the court held that a defendant who has no knowledge that the property he or she possessed was stolen could never intend to permanently deprive the actual owner of the property. Id. at 644. Therefore, a defendant in that situation would not be guilty of theft. Id.
In this case, a police officer responded to a car accident in which there was a single overturned car. Id. at 638. Once the officer arrived on the scene, the defendant identified himself as the driver of the overturned car. Id. After running the defendant’s name, the officer learned that the defendant was driving on an expired license and arrested him. Id. Following the arrest, the officer searched the defendant’s car and found a handgun that had been reported stolen. Id. As a result, the defendant was charged with theft—meaning the defendant had obtained or exerted unauthorized control over the handgun with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession of the handgun. Id. During trial, the prosecuting attorney asserted that the State (plaintiff) had no burden to prove that the defendant knew that the handgun was stolen. After trial, the defendant was convicted of theft. Id. at 639-40.
On appeal, the defendant argued that there was not enough evidence to convict him of theft. Id. In addressing the argument, the Court of Appeals of Kansas first noted that every theft offense, without exception, required that the defendant know they had somehow gained control over stolen property. Id. at 643. Furthermore, the court went on to describe three different stolen property scenarios: (1) defendants actively engaged in stealing the property, (2) thefts involving defendants who had passively received stolen property know it was stolen by another, and (3) defendants who had no knowledge the property was stolen. Id. at 643-44. According to the court, the defendants who were actively engaged in stealing the property would have the necessary guilty mindset to commit a theft because the act of taking the property from the owner established that it was their intent to deprive the owner of the possession, use, or benefit of the property. Id. Additionally, the court stated that the defendant who knowingly received stolen property also had the necessary guilty mindset to commit a theft because the act of receiving the property that they knew was stolen meant they also intended to permanently deprive the rightful owner of the property. Id. at 644. However, the court concluded that defendants who had no knowledge that the property they possessed was stolen could never intend to permanently deprive the actual owner of the property because those defendants would believe that they were the actual owners of the property. Id.
In conclusion, the court determined that the defendant did not know the handgun was stolen; therefore, he should not have been found guilty of theft. Id.