Receiving Stolen Property
Definition of the Crime under California Penal Code §496
In order to charge any person with a crime, the prosecution must successfully prove every element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. Failure to meet any one of the elements results in failure to prove the crime as charged.
The Crime of Receiving Stolen Property
The elements of receiving stolen property under California Penal Code Section 496(a) are:
- Buying, receiving, concealing, selling or withholding property obtained through any enumerated theft crimes or extortion;
- Property known to be stolen (or the product of a theft crime or extortion);
- Having possession of the stolen property;
- Helping another person in buying, receiving, concealing, selling or withholding property obtained through enumerated theft crimes or extortion.
The status of specific business owners can be relevant to a charge of receiving stolen property under California Penal Code Section 496(b):
- “Swap meet vendors” (including “flea markets”, “indoor swap meets” and “open-air market” vendors); California Business and Professions Code Sections 21660 & 21661;
- “Agents”, “employees” and “representatives” of swap meet vendors as defined under California Business and Professions Code §§ 21660 and 21661;
- Who buy or receive;
- Property known to be stolen or obtained through theft crimes or extortion, or without making a “reasonable inquiry” as to the legitimacy of the sale or delivery of the item, or seller.
- Which theft crimes are included under receiving stolen property?
- Robbery under California Penal Code Section 211;
- Burglary under California Penal Code Section 459;
- Theft of lost property under California Penal Code Section 485;
- Grand theft under California Penal Code Section 487;
- Petit theft under California Penal Code Section 488;
- Property obtained as a result of cybercrime (hacking) under California Penal Code Section 502
- Embezzlement under California Penal Code Sections 503, 504, 505, 506, 507, 508, 509, 510, 511, 512, 513
- Extortion under California Penal Code Sections 518, 519, 520, 521, 522, 523, 524, 525, 526, 527
- What types of businesses might be included under Section 496?
Any business person whose actions meet the requirements as set out under Section 496(a). Specific businesses such as “swap meet” vendors, those who trade at flea markets or indoor and outdoor swap markets, and also those who buy and receive second-hand materials and junk can be charged under California Penal Code §496(b). For example, scrap metal dealers and recycling facilities are included. So are second-hand bookstore dealers who disregard any obvious indications of ownership by a third party.
- What if I did not know the property was “stolen”?
To prove the element of knowledge, the state must satisfy a reasonableness standard. If the state can prove that a person in your same position at the time of receiving the property in question did in fact know (had actual knowledge), or should have known (had constructive knowledge) that the property was stolen, then the knowledge element has been met. The “reasonableness” standard for “knowing the property to be stolen” under Section 496 of the Code depends on variable factors, ranging from your age, education, profession and previous criminal record (if applicable). A good faith belief that the goods were not in fact stolen might be sufficient to disprove this element. To illustrate, buying an item for far less than its fair market value and not making an inquiry as to the reason behind the low sales price, or whether the seller is legitimate, will be considered unreasonable if a “reasonable person” would have suspected that the item was “hot”. Therefore, you naivety will be no defense.
- What does possession of stolen property mean?
Being in possession of stolen property could mean either being in “actual possession” and in “constructive possession” of property. Property in one’s actual possession is property over which one has physical control. Property in one’s constructive possession is property one has the right to control, even if not by physical possession. Being in constructive possession of stolen property could happen if a person who stole valuables placed them inside your home through your consent. Because you are the owner of the home, and viewed as having control over it, you could be charged with receiving stolen property under these circumstances despite lacking physical control over the goods themselves.
- What kinds of “property” are included?
Whereas stolen “property” includes tangible physical property, under a further reading of California Penal Code Section 502, specifically §502(b)(6),§502(b)(7),§502(b)(8) and §502(b)(10), “data”, “supporting documentation”, “injury” and “computer contaminant”, respectively, are reasonably susceptible to “property” for purposes of California Penal Code §496. Basically, any hacked information can be regarded as stolen property.
The term “property” has also been extended under existing California case law to include intellectual property, comprising any secret or confidential information used to procure an economic benefit. Basically, any information that is “copyrightable”, such as trade secrets, patents and trademark, can be interpreted as “property” under CA Penal Code §496.
“Property” has been further extended under California Penal Code §537(e) to specifically include any property from which a serial number or mark can be removed, such as computers, bicycles, scientific equipment, vessel component, etc.
Defenses to the Crime of Receiving Stolen Property
- What can help my defense?
Both legal and procedural defenses may be helpful to your successful defense. For the state to successfully charge an individual with receiving stolen property, both “bad act” (actus reus) and “bad mind” (mens rea) requirements must be proved to have coexisted. For example, if you end up having actual possession of stolen property which you bought at a reasonable price, there is no mens rea, so the charge will be dropped.
- Having no knowledge that the property was in fact “stolen”
- Having no knowledge as to possession (actual or constructive) of the property
- Having a good faith belief or reasonable belief that the property rightfully belongs to you
- Having intent to return the property to the rightful owner at the exact moment that you received the property (this defense often applies to law enforcement who receives stolen goods as a matter of course)
- If you were entrapped by law enforcement (a difficult defense to prove, nonetheless, if you were not in any way ready or willing to receive stolen property and the police conduct in question would even make an innocent person commit this crime, then the defense might work)
- If you were insane at the time of receiving stolen property (also a difficult defense but one which would cancel the “knowledge” element)
- If you were involuntarily intoxicated (a stronger defense where, mentally, you became legally insane by taking a substance you did not know had intoxicating effects, and this caused you not to understand that your actions were wrong, or you could not stop yourself from performing the illegal acts)
- What about voluntary intoxication?
For example, if you drank too much at a party, or took narcotics for recreational purposes, and use that to defend against the “knowledge” element of receiving stolen property, you will likely be unsuccessful. The test used is if a sober individual would have known the property was stolen, voluntary intoxication is no defense.
- If you didn’t have the mental capacity to understand your actions (for example, your educational background is severely lacking compared to other people your age)
- Law enforcement searched and seized your property unreasonably in violation of the 4th Amendment (this is a complex analysis, but you were essentially in a position where you did not feel free to decline an officer’s requests for searching your property). Article I, Section 13 of the California Constitution, and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States.
- Law enforcement uses official compulsion to get you to confess to the crime against your free will or to make some sort of incriminating statement. Article I, Sections 7 & 15 of the California Constitution, and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States.
- What can hurt my defense?
The prosecution can use many different facts to prove their case, and this will depend on particular facts in every situation. Here are a few examples of some facts that would help the prosecution build a stronger case:
- You bought an item on which the serial number or distinguishing features had obviously been tampered with, which should have alerted you to a suspicious transaction (so cheap it’s got to be “hot”)
- You helped another person to conceal the property
- You were not responsive to law enforcement’s reasonable requests
Penalties and Sentencing Imposed for Receiving Stolen Property in California
Under Section 496, receiving stolen property is considered a very serious crime. It can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The fact that it can be charged as a misdemeanor is the result of Proposition 47 recently passed in California, which reduced penalties imposed for certain crimes. Because receiving stolen property can be charged by the prosecutor as either a misdemeanor or a felony, it is referred to as a “wobbler”.
- What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony?
A misdemeanor carries with it a maximum of one year jail sentence. Some other court costs may also be imposed on the defendant.
A felony carries a jail sentence of over one year because the actions committed are considered more serious.
- How does the prosecutor decide whether to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or a felony?
The prosecutor may use his or her discretion based on the facts of the case and the criminal history of a defendant.
- Can the value of the property have a bearing on the prosecutor’s decision to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or a felony?
Yes. In fact, where the value of the property is equal to or less than $950, the prosecutor must plead the crime as a misdemeanor. Discretion by the prosecutor is therefore out of the question here.
- If I am charged under receiving stolen property as a felony, what is the maximum sentence and penalties?
The maximum sentence would be three years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000.
- If I am charged under this crime as a misdemeanor, what kind of sentence and penalties can be imposed?
The maximum sentence is one year plus a maximum fine of $1,000.
Restitution Orders to Victims of Crimes in California
Beyond formal sentencing and penalties, under the following code sections of the California Constitution, CA Penal Code and CA Welfare and Institutions Code, the court can force a defendant to pay back economic losses suffered by victims through the crime of receiving stolen property:
Mandated Under the California Constitution
Under the California Constitution, Art. 1, Section 28, subdivision (b), victims of crimes have a right protected under the state constitution to receive reasonable restitution for their economic losses.
Under Section 1202.4 of the CA Penal Code
The California Penal Code Section 1202.4 provides for the same mandatory restitution to be paid directly from the defendant to the victim where the criminal act caused the economic loss.
Under Section 730.6 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code
Minors involved in crimes which incurred economic loss to victims are also subject to payment of a separate restitution fee as shall be determined by the court based on the seriousness of the crime.