Receiving Stolen Property


Everyone’s heard of property that “fell off the truck” and was then given to friends and family or sold at a discounted price. However, accepting or buying these products is illegal. It’s known as receiving stolen property, and it’s a serious offense – one that should be handled by an experienced California theft lawyer.

What Constitutes Receiving Stolen Property?

Under California Penal Code §496, receiving stolen property is a specific, yet broad crime. Anyone who buys, receives, conceals, withholds – or aids in these actions – property that they know was obtained through a theft crime or extortion can be charged with receiving stolen goods. Theft crimes include petty theft, grand theft, embezzlement, extortion, robbery, burglary, theft of lost property, and theft through cybercrime.

This offense doesn’t charge you with stealing the property, but it charges you with possessing or controlling property that doesn’t rightfully belong to you.

Legal businesses can also get into trouble if they don’t make the proper inquiries about used or previously owned goods and whether the individual selling the property to them has the legal right to do so. California law specifically calls out swap meet vendors, more commonly thought of as flea market vendors, as well as their employees and agents. These individuals must make reasonable inquiries to ensure they are not receiving stolen property.

Penalties for Receiving Stolen Property

This offense can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the person’s previous criminal history, the circumstances, and the value of the stolen goods. If you’re convicted of a misdemeanor, you face up to one year in jail, court costs, and a fine.

A felony conviction carries a much harsher sentence, including up to three years in prison.

Additionally, the victim of the crime – the owner of the property – can sue you and is entitled to three times the amount of his or her damages. You’ll also have to pay court costs and the victim’s attorney’s fees.

Defenses for Receiving Stolen Property

There are multiple defenses to receiving stolen property, including:

  • Lack of Possession – In order to receive stolen goods you must actually have the illegally obtained property in your possession or have been in control of the property at some point. However, if you never actually purchased the item or were never responsible for moving or withholding the property, you’re unlikely to be found guilty of the offense.
  • Lack of Knowledge – If you didn’t know the property was illegally obtained, and there was no reasonable way you should, you are unlikely to be found guilty of receiving stolen property. For instance, say you purchased a used bicycle online from someone who reasonably claimed to be the owner. You saw nothing to indicate this wasn’t true, paid for the bike, and took it home with you. Your attorney will argue there were no indicators that the property was stolen. The average bike doesn’t come with a letter of authenticity or a registration, so there was no need to ask about one. Bikes have serial numbers, but they are rarely tracked by this feature. You can’t be punished for accidentally buying or receiving stolen property.
  • Claim of Right – If you obtained property truly believing you had the right to that property, your attorney can argue claim of right. For this defense to work, you must have believed in good faith that you could legally and openly take the property, even if you were actually wrong or it was unreasonable to think this. For this defense to work, you must have openly taken the property. If you tried to conceal that you were obtaining the property, you can’t argue claim of right.
  • Voluntary Intoxication – Voluntary intoxication is rarely a defense to a crime. However, if your attorney can show that you were intoxicated to the point of being unable to understand that the property was stolen when you obtained it, he or she may be able to prove you lacked the necessary intent to commit this crime. Involuntary intoxication, such as if you were drugged, can also be a defense against intent to commit a crime.
  • Innocent Intent – In some situations, your attorney can argue you had an innocent intent. This means you received the stolen property with the purpose of giving it back to the owner or turning it over to the police. For example, maybe you learn that a friend stole an iPad from another person’s house. You take the iPad with the intent to take it to the police so it can be returned to the owner. This defense only works if you don’t change your mind and continue to keep the iPad.

How a San Diego Theft Attorney Can Help

Receiving stolen property is a specific intent crime, which means you must understand the items are stolen, knowingly intend to take possession of them, and then actually take possession or have control over the property. All of the offense’s elements must be proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt.

Your attorney will learn the factual circumstances surrounding your case and do his or her best to show that the prosecutor cannot prove one or more of these elements. There are many instances in which someone obtains or deals with stolen goods without committing a crime, which is why it’s crucial for someone charged with this offense to obtain legal advice from an experienced theft attorney.

If you want to learn more about how a California theft lawyer can help you, call Jessica McElfresh at (858) 756-7107 for a free consultation.