Receiving Stolen Property

Though each state has its own laws and terminology, all states, and the federal government, criminalize the receipt of stolen property.

By , J.D.
Updated February 15, 2023

While theft is a universally understood crime, not everyone knows that you can also commit a theft crime if you acquire stolen goods—even if you're not the one who stole them. Though each state has its own laws and terminology, all states, and the federal government, criminalize the receipt of stolen property (also known as possession of stolen property or goods).

What Is Receipt of Stolen Property?

Some state's theft or larceny offenses include the offense of receiving stolen property, while others might make it a separate crime. Generally, the crime occurs when someone buys, possesses, or receives property that they know (or should know) is stolen.

For example, if a person buys a television from a friend who says he stole it from his employer, the person is guilty of receiving stolen property. Or, if the person buys the television from a stranger selling electronics from the back of a van, the person is probably guilty because most people in that situation would suspect the TV was stolen. Even if someone accepts stolen property as a gift they can be guilty if they know or should have known it was stolen.

To be guilty of receiving stolen property, the person doesn't necessarily have to take actual physical custody of it—having "control" over it is sufficient. For instance, if you allow someone to keep stolen merchandise in a place of your choosing, such as a designated hiding spot, you've exercised control over it, which is enough for "receiving."

How Can the Prosecution Prove the Defendant Knew the Property Was Stolen?

When the evidence is clear that a defendant knew that the property was stolen, it's pretty easy to establish this part of the prosecutor's case. For example, if the defendant saw someone steal it or was told it was stolen, there'd be little doubt that they knew it was stolen.

But sometimes it's not as straightforward. People can be guilty of receiving property even if they haven't been informed it was stolen, so long as they "should have known" that it was. 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 suspect them as well.

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. If you purchased them, you'd commit the crime of receiving stolen property.

However, the "should have known" standard can also work to the accused person's advantage. You wouldn't be guilty of receiving stolen property if there was no reasonable way 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're not guilty of possessing stolen goods because you had no way to know that the batteries were stolen.

Intending to Keep the Property

In some states, the prosecutor 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 specifying that a person commits the crime when they receive stolen property without intending to return it to its owner.

Possessing Stolen Property Unknowingly

People aren't guilty of receiving stolen property if they didn't know the property was in their possession. For example, suppose someone bought luggage at a thrift store and found some jewelry hidden away in its lining, which turned out to be stolen. The person wouldn't be guilty of receiving stolen property if when they bought the luggage they didn't know about the jewelry inside.

What Happens if You Find Stolen Property?

In most states, someone who finds property that appears to be stolen has a duty to return it to its rightful owner or the police. If they fail to return it, they could be guilty of concealing stolen property, which can happen when someone innocently receives stolen property but keeps it after learning it's stolen.

Imagine that in the luggage example above, the person who bought the suitcase found the jewelry along with a mask, a gun, and a map to a jewelry store. In that situation, the person would have pretty strong reasons to think the jewelry was stolen during a burglary or robbery, so they'd have a duty to return it to the store or the police. Even if they just found the jewels, the safest thing would be to inform the police, because the fact the jewels were hidden might be enough to suspect they were stolen.

Defenses to Receiving Stolen Property

In addition to the common defenses that might apply in any criminal case, there are some defenses that are more specific to receiving stolen property. Here are a few examples:

Didn't Know it Was Stolen

If someone had no idea the property was stolen, they wouldn't be guilty of receiving stolen property. For example, imagine that Ryder buys a gently used road bike at a fair price from his neighbor, who seems like a good guy. When Ryder brings it into the bike shop for routine maintenance, the mechanic notices that it's one of the bikes stolen from the shop a year ago. If Ryder is charged with receiving stolen property, he could argue that he had no knowledge the bike was stolen: He had no reason to think his neighbor would sell him a stolen bike, and the price wasn't so low that it raised any suspicion.

Didn't Knowingly Possess the Property

As noted above, a person hasn't committed a crime if they didn't know they possessed the property that was stolen. In the luggage example above, imagine that the person has no idea about the jewels hidden in the lining until the items are detected by the baggage scanner at the airport. If charged with receiving stolen property, the person would probably argue they didn't know they even possessed stolen property.

Mistake of Fact

A mistake of fact defense is another way to show that the accused didn't know the property was stolen. Imagine that Rosie is walking down the street when she sees a large, crumpled air conditioner hose on the curb. Knowing that the hose has high value as scrap metal, and thinking it's been thrown out, Rosie scoops it up. Little does she know that a couple of metal thieves had just put the hose down to go dismantle another AC unit next door. A neighbor has already called the cops, who arrive to find Rosie holding the stolen hose. If charged, Rosie could probably argue that she made a mistake of fact because she thought the hose had been abandoned as trash, so she didn't know the property was stolen.

Penalties for Receiving Stolen Property

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.

Receiving stolen property can be a misdemeanor or a felony. The dividing line (or monetary threshold) between what is a misdemeanor and felony differs by state. Some states start felony offenses when the property's value is $500 or $1,000; others set the amount higher. The offense 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 some examples of possible penalties for receiving stolen property:

  • Incarceration. A misdemeanor can result in up to a year in a local jail in some states, while felonies can be punished by a year or more in a state prison. Sentences might also be increased if the defendant has prior convictions for receiving stolen property (or sometimes other crimes).
  • Fines. Fines for receiving stolen property differ widely from state to state. They can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. The more valuable the property, the higher the fine will usually be. In some states, the judge can impose a fine that's double or triple the amount of the defendant's financial gain from the crime.
  • Restitution. People convicted of receiving stolen property often have to pay restitution. Restitution is money paid to the legal owners of the stolen goods to compensate them for their loss.
  • Probation. Courts can also sentence the person to probation instead of or in addition to some jail time.

Consult With an Attorney

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 should be able to give you legal, practical, and realistic advice about your situation and the options you have.

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