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Receiving Stolen Property: Possession is Not Enough

While on patrol, you run a car’s license plate. The car comes back stolen, so you initiate a traffic stop. Should you arrest the driver for Receiving Stolen Property?

That depends. Simply being in possession of stolen property is not enough to warrant a charge of Receiving Stolen Property.

According to the Ohio Revised Code, there are two elements that must be met to prove a charge of Receiving Stolen Property. The first is possessing stolen property. The second is “knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the property has been obtained through the commission of a theft offense.”

In the above example, the driver is clearly in possession of stolen property. But does he know or have reason to believe that car is stolen? Without proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the affirmative, we cannot obtain a conviction for Receiving Stolen Property.

Why does the law require us to prove a knowledge or reasonable belief of the property being stolen? There are many reasons someone may unwittingly have possession of stolen property. For example, a woman may receive stolen jewelry as a gift. A man could purchase stolen electronics at a pawn shop or second-hand store. In some neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to borrow a car from a friend or even a stranger for a brief amount of time in exchange for money.

So how can you prove that second element? First, take a good look at the property. When was it stolen? The longer the amount of time it was reported stolen, the harder it is to prove that the possessor knows or should know the property is stolen, much less is the person who stole it. Does the suspect have anything that would lead that person to believe he was legally in possession of the property? For example, are the keys in the car? On the flip side, is there anything indicating that the property is stolen, such as a punched ignition or a broken window?

Second, interview the suspect and document all answers in your police report. Get the suspect to talk as much as possible about the property. How did he get the property? How long has he had it? Where did he get it? What does he know about it? If a suspect refuses to say where he received the property or is vague about how he got it, it is easier to prove he knew or should have known the property was stolen.

Prosecutors often use Receiving Stolen Property as an alternative to a Theft charge when we can prove the defendant knew the property was stolen but lack the evidence to prove he actually stole it. We may have some evidence that points to the defendant as the person who stole the property. However, we must still meet the threshold of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant not only possessed stolen property and knew it was stolen, but that he also actually stole it in order to prosecute the suspect for theft.

Consider someone trying to sell jewelry at a pawn shop. The jewelry matches the description of items stolen during a recent rash of burglaries. The seller claims he received the jewelry when his grandma passed away. An investigation reveals that the seller’s grandma is still living and never owned the jewelry in question. Obviously the seller was in possession of stolen property. And that he lied about the property’s origins proves he had reason to believe the property was stolen. However, there is no evidence other than the stolen jewelry to connect the seller to any of the burglaries. In this case, although we believe he was involved in the burglaries, we can only charge him with Receiving Stolen Property.

Receiving Stolen Property is a good alternative charge to Theft because the thresholds are the same for both charges. Property valued at less than $1,000 is a misdemeanor. Property valued at $1,000 to $7,500 is felony of the fifth degree. Property valued from $7,501 to $150,000 is a felony of the fourth degree. Cars, guns, checks, credit cards and prescription drugs are all felonies of the fourth degree, regardless of their value.

Always remember that possessing stolen property in and of itself is not a crime. A suspect must meet the second element of either knowing or having reason to believe that the property is stolen in order to be charged with Receiving Stolen Property.

This article is not to be considered legal advice. Please consult your police legal advisor regarding any legal issue.