While theft is a universally understood crime, not everyone knows that you can also commit a theft crime if you acquire stolen or illegally obtained goods. Though each state has its own laws and terminology, all states, and the federal government criminalize the receipt of stolen property.
Receipt of stolen property, also known as possession of stolen property or goods, occurs whenever you knowingly purchase, obtain, receive, or possess any property knowing (or should know) is stolen with the intent of depriving the owner of the property.
For example, if you buy a television from a friend who tells you that he stole it from his employer, you are guilty of receiving stolen property. Also, if you buy the television from a stranger selling electronics from the back of a van, you are also guilty of the crime because a reasonable person in your situation would suspect the TV was stolen. Further, if you receive property as a gift or store it in your home, knowing that it's stolen or under circumstances that should have alerted you to its stolen nature, you've also committed a crime.
When prosecutors can prove that a defendant knew that the property was stolen, it's pretty easy to establish this part of their case. But as explained above, the crime of receiving stolen property can also occur when a defendant obtains property that, given the circumstances, should have alerted him to its stolen nature. Cases that rest on proving that the defendant "should have known" the property was stolen are less straightforward than those that involve property the defendant knew was stolen.
In a case involving a "should have known" situation, a prosecutor must show that a reasonable person would have suspected the items were stolen. The "reasonable person" standard means that, if an average person in the defendant's situation would have been suspicious of the goods, the defendant should be suspect of them as well. That's all the prosecutor needs to show. In other words, the defendant's willful ignorance of the facts or naivete won't help him if a reasonable person in his situation would have concluded that the goods were stolen. If the defendant acquires the items anyway and they turn out to be stolen, the defendant is guilty of receipt of stolen property.
For example, let's say a man approaches you and asks if you'd like to buy some premium jewelry for very cheap prices. He shows you a collection of necklaces, rings, and watches in a brown paper bag. None of the jewelry has sales tags or packaging. In this situation, any reasonable person would suspect that the items were stolen. By purchasing them, you commit the crime of receiving stolen property.
However, the "should have known" standard can also work to the defendant's advantage. You would not be guilty of receiving stolen property if there was no reasonable way for you to know the property was stolen. For example, if you go to a store and buy a package of batteries that later turn out to have been stolen by the shop owner, you are not guilty of possessing stolen goods because you had no way to know that the batteries were stolen.
Defendants won't be guilty of the crime of receiving stolen property if they did not know the property was in their possession. For example, suppose you purchase luggage at an estate sale, find some jewelry hidden away in its lining, and only later discover it was stolen. You have not committed the crime of possession of stolen property. Though you knowingly purchased the luggage, you didn't know that it contained stolen property. While you have a duty to return the jewelry to its rightful owner or the police, you have not stolen it or received it as stolen property.
Although the property must be received by the defendant, he need not take actual physical custody of it—having control over it is sufficient. For instance, if you allow someone to deposit stolen merchandise in a place of your choosing, such as a designated hiding spot, you've exercised control over it, which will suffice for "receiving."
Finally, prosecutors in some states must prove that the defendant intended to keep the property or, at least, deprive the owner of it. Otherwise, a police officer who takes stolen property from a suspect could be guilty of receiving stolen property. Some states solve this problem by handling the "return" issue in the definition of the crime, specifying that a person commits the crime when he receives stolen property without the intent of returning it to its owner.
Like other property crimes, penalties for receiving stolen property depend largely on the property's value and the laws of the state where you received the property. Some state's theft or larceny offenses cover the offense of receiving stolen property, while others might designate it as a separate crime. States categorize crimes as either misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor generally carries with it the potential for fines and up to a year in a local jail, while felonies come with much higher fines and the potential for more than a year in a state prison.
The dividing line (or monetary threshold) between what is a misdemeanor and felony differs by state. Some states start felony offenses at $500 or $1,000; others set the threshold higher. Possession of stolen goods can also be a felony based on the type of property. For example, possessing an illegally obtained credit card may constitute a felony even if you never use it to make purchases.
Here are examples of possible criminal penalties.
If you've been charged with possession of stolen goods, it's in your best interest to speak to a local attorney who specializes in criminal defense as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney can give you legal, practical, and realistic advice about your situation and the options you have.