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 possession of stolen goods, occurs whenever you knowingly purchase, obtain, receive or possess any property that you know, or should know, is stolen, intending to keep it from the owner. 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 behave 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 hot. If the defendant then acquires the items anyway and they turn out to be stolen, the defendant should have known they were stolen and 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 behave 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, and while you have a duty to return it 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 receiving stolen property depend largely the property's value and the laws of the state where you received the property. States categorize crimes as either misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor carries with it the potential for fines and up to a year in a county jail, while felonies come with much higher fines and the potential for more than a year in a state prison.
The dividing line between what is a misdemeanor and felony also differs by state, though receipt of property that’s worth between $250 and $500 is usually the minimum for a felony offense. However, possession of stolen goods may also be a felony based on the type of property. For example, possessing an illegally obtained credit card constitutes a felony even if you never use it to make purchases.
Fines. Fines for receipt of stolen property differ widely from state to state. They can range from several hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars; the more valuable the property you receive, the higher the fine.
Jail. Like fines, the length of a jail sentence for possession of stolen goods depends on the value of the property. Sentences range from a few days in jail to several years in a state prison. Sentences can also be increased if you have prior convictions for receipt of stolen property or other crimes.
Restitution. In addition to any fine, a person convicted of receiving stolen property often has to pay restitution. Restitution is money you pay to the legal owners of the stolen goods to compensate them for their loss.
Probation. Courts may also sentence you to probation. When sentenced to probation, the court makes specific terms and rules that you have to follow, such as meeting with a probation officer regularly, maintaining employment, and not committing any more crimes. If you violate these rules, you will have to serve the original jail sentence.
If you've been charged with possession of stolen goods, it is in your best interest to speak to a local attorney who specializes in criminal defense as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney who knows how cases like yours are likely to be handled by the prosecutors and judges who will be involved in your case can give you practical and realistic advice about your situation and the options you have.