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What Happens If You Are in Possession of Stolen Properties?

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A luxury watch on a wooden desk

Every year, 1.2 million homes are burglarized, 13 billion dollars worth of store merchandise is stolen, and 5 million thefts are reported. Property crime, in which property was stolen, is the most common crime reported in the United States. Needless to say, there are billions of stolen properties circulating in the United States. When a person receives stolen goods, the receiver becomes reliable for “being in the possession of stolen properties.” Those in possession of stolen goods can be convicted and given time in jail, or be forced to pay a fee.

However, not everyone who is in possession of stolen goods can be held accountable. Here is everything you need to know about the possession of stolen properties or receiving stolen property.

Where Are Stolen Properties Sold?

The most common place a person will come across stolen goods is on online marketplaces such as Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace. These online “stores” allow sellers to sell a variety of items at their chosen price. It’s not common for sellers to provide a reason for selling the item or to provide proof of buying the item. Because of the lax regulations for selling items on these online marketplaces, sellers may advertise products without mentioning that the item was stolen. Here are the most common places to find stolen goods:

Personal information in wallet and phone lying on a wooden table ready for an identity thief to steal.

Stolen Items on Craigslist

In January 2020, a $10,000 guitar was stolen from a hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. When the guitar was stolen, the police had several leads. However, a few days later, the guitar was listed on Craigslist for $10,000. The sellers stated on the site that they were selling their guitar in order to get rent money. The police orchestrated a buy in order to check the sellers. The police were able to intercept the seller, retrieve the stolen items, and return the item to the rightful owner.

The county sheriff’s office posted on their Salt Lake City Police Facebook account after the arrest, “Pro tip: if you steal someone’s $10,000 bass guitar, don’t post it for sale online.”

Craigslist offers ways to protect buyers from accidentally engaging in criminal activities. If you see an item that you suspect has been stolen, you should report the item. If you come across an item that you believe was stolen from you, do not attempt to buy it back. Instead, alert the local sheriff's office.

A lit up laptop keyboard

Stolen Items on eBay

Stolen items on eBay are treated very similar to finding stolen items on Craigslist. If you find a stolen item, report the item to the police; do not attempt to buy the item yourself. The site has a page explaining eBay’s policy on stolen goods. The site states, “The sale of stolen property is not allowed on eBay. The sale of stolen property violates state, federal and international law, and we will notify law enforcement of any attempts to sell stolen property on eBay.” The page continues to specify their policy, assuring buyers that any and all stolen merchandise should be reported immediately.

Stolen Items on Facebook Marketplace

Facebook Marketplace is a fairly new addition to Facebook’s services. The marketplace allows Facebook users to buy and sell goods from one another. However, the site has perhaps fewer restrictions than many of the other online marketplaces. Facebook states on their Help page that if a user sees stolen goods, they should, “Report the listing to us. Contact your local law enforcement to file a police report.”

cell phone with apps that can be used for wireless security alert system remote monitoring

Stolen Items in Pawn Shops

Another common place where stolen items are found is in pawn shops. Pawnshops can be found in every city and are a common place to find oddities and rare items. To sell at a pawn shop, the seller must bring an item that they are willing to part with. The seller can then trade the item to the pawnshop owner for a price that the pawnshop owner dictates. The seller can then either take and spend the money, or return with the same sum of money and buy the item back within 60 days. However, pawn owners aren’t required to ask where the seller came across the item, which encourages thieves to attempt selling stolen properties.

If a pawn shop is found in possession of stolen items and they have not filed a police report, the police can prosecute the owner for receiving stolen property. The crime is seen as theft and—depending on the value of the stolen item—the pawnbroker can face up to several years in jail. If the pawnbroker thinks that they have been sold stolen items, the pawnbroker can sue the seller.

The penalty for pawning stolen merchandise is up to 10 years in prison, a conviction of a second-degree felony, and a maximum fine of $10,000. If you fear that you have pawned stolen property, it’s best to contact a criminal defense lawyer in order to avoid charges and clear the action.

In Rochester, New York, a pawnshop owner was arrested by the FBI for knowingly dealing in stolen property. Devin Tribunella faced federal charges for encouraging people suffering from opioid addictions to steal merchandise from stores and then sell the stolen property to the pawnshop for a fraction of the price. The man is being charged with purchasing and re-selling more than $3.2 million in stolen property, according to the news report.

We are open sign in a shop's glass door

Reporting Stolen Items

If you suspect that an item is being sold on an online marketplace has been stolen, it’s important that you try to report the item. Reporting the item can prevent stolen items from being sold. If a seller who is attempting to sell stolen goods is prosecuted each time he or she attempts to sell a stolen item, it will decrease the chances of the seller attempting to steal again in order to sell again.

Can You Be Prosecuted For Owning Stolen Goods?

If you are found in possession of stolen property, you can be prosecuted for it, depending on the situation. The conviction for the receipt of stolen property will depend on several things:

  • Value of the stolen item
  • Knowledge that the item was stolen
  • Knowledge that the item was in their possession
  • Intent to keep the stolen item

These four factors will influence your case. To understand exactly how your case will be influenced if you are found in possession of stolen property, speak with a criminal defense attorney and consult the penal code in your state.

Value of a Stolen Item

If you are found in possession of a stolen item, one of the main factors that will influence your case is the value of the item. Items that have a higher value will demand a higher penalty. For example, if you are in possession of a stolen motor vehicle, the conviction will be much higher than if you are found in possession of a charm bracelet. The value of the stolen item often determines the sentence.

An officer's back with a radio and handcuffs

Knowledge the Item Was Stolen

Another factor that determines your prosecution is whether or not the defendant knew the property was stolen. If you buy stolen goods without knowing that the item was stolen, you will not face any criminal charges; you will only need to return the item. However, if you suspect that the item was stolen, you should immediately alert the police. If you buy an item, with the suspicion that the item was stolen, you will be held accountable for buying stolen goods. This is called a “should have known” situation.

While in court, the opposing side simply needs to clarify that the defendant “should have known” that the item was stolen. It was up to the defendant to ask clarifying questions before buying the stolen property. If the defendant did not ask the necessary questions, then it is the defendant who failed to do his or her duty. If the defendant asked about how the seller came to own the property before selling, and the seller lied, the defendant may be cleared of charges after returning to the property to the rightful owner.

The court does not expect the defendant to be anything beyond a “reasonable person.” A reasonable person is a person who thinks and acts with the mental capacity of a regular citizen. Essentially, the court expects you to be suspicious of suspicious purchases (within reason); the court does not expect you to be a detective for every purchase you are going to make.

An example of a situation where a person “should have known” is if you come across a street vendor. The street vendor is selling expensive brand-name Rolex watches and jewelry for an extremely low price. The vendor, instead of asking over $7,000 for an authentic Rolex watch, is asking for $50. The seller does not explain how these expensive watches are being sold so cheaply. In this situation, you, as the buyer, should have known that the items were stolen, since there is no way that a brand-name could be sold so cheaply.

On the other hand, if you buy a stolen property and it was nearly impossible to know that the item was stolen, you cannot be held accountable.

Man in a suit driving at sunset with one hand on the wheel.

Knowledge the Item is in Your Possession

There is a wide definition of “receiving stolen property.” Technically, the defendant doesn’t need to have bought the item or to own the stolen item in order to have received or possessed the item. This means that you can be in possession of a stolen item without knowing it.

For example, if a thief hides stolen property in your backyard shed and the stash is found by the police, you will not be held accountable since you didn’t know that the items were in your possession. On the other hand, if you knowingly accept stolen items with the intent to hide the items until the thief can return and claim the items, you can be held guilty for possessing stolen goods.

Another example of this is if you purchase a backpack from a yard sale. The backpack itself was not a stolen item. However, when you take the backpack home, you find a diamond ring inside a pocket. The ring had been stolen from a jewelry shop several weeks before. Since you didn’t purposefully buy the ring, you won’t be held accountable for buying the stolen ring (as long as you file a police report and give the ring back to the rightful owner).

In some cases, you don’t even have to touch the stolen items to be guilty of having them in your possession. For example, if you consult with a thief and tell them a safe place to hide the items, you will have legally “received” the stolen goods, and you can be charged for concealing stolen property.

If you suspect that you have recently bought something that may have been stolen, you should file a police report and call your defense attorney to ask for advice. If you are honest, open, and prompt, you shouldn't be held accountable for possessing stolen property.

Intent to Keep the Item

To cover loopholes in property theft laws, it was decided that in order to be accused of being in possession of a stolen item, the person would have to take it with the “intent to deprive” the original owner of the item. Essentially, the person has to take or buy the item and plan to keep the item from the person who they received it from.

Why make this law? Police officers who take stolen items could be accused of being in possession of a stolen good. However, since the person must have the “intent to deprive,” it means that officers can’t be accused. This law protects law enforcement officers from being wrongfully accused while they are trying to return stolen items to their original owners.

What Are the Penalties for Owning a Stolen Item?

When convicted of possessing a stolen item, a person can be convicted of either a misdemeanor or a felony. The sentence will depend on the crime, the item that was stolen, and the situation surrounding the conviction.

What is a Misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a lower tier of crime and can be punished by either imprisonment or a fine. It is described as a moderate crime, less severe than a felony, and more severe than an infraction (which rarely involves jail time and usually only requires the person to pay a fine). Within the classification of a misdemeanor, there are also different levels. For example, a person can be convicted of a misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to predict the exact charge and fine that a person will receive for a specific crime since so much depends on the story that is told in the courtroom. A person may commit a terrible crime but then receive a very mild judgment. Or a person could commit a mild crime and receive a harsh judgment.

Crimes that are typically misdemeanors are:

  • Simple Assault. Simple assault is when a punch is thrown, but neither party is seriously injured. If a person is threatened, pushed, slapped, or punched, the crime is simple assault.
  • Shoplifting. In most cases, shoplifting is a misdemeanor. If the item that is stolen is worth thousands of dollars, the person may be given a higher sentence.
  • Trespassing. Trespassing is a misdemeanor. If a person walks onto private property without permission, the person can be accused of trespassing.
  • Disorderly Conduct. Disorderly Conduct is when a person acts in a way that might cause other people to be alarmed, scared, frustrated, or angry.
  • Low-Level Offenses. Many low-level offenses are also classified as misdemeanors.

Although a misdemeanor is a simple crime, it is still considered a crime. Because of that, misdemeanors are a part of a person’s permanent record. A misdemeanor will remain on a person’s record unless the crime is successfully petitioned to be removed in a court.

A purse of stolen properties

What is a Felony?

A felony is a serious crime. The federal government defines felonies as crimes that require more than one year in prison. However, many states vary in their own definitions of what a felony means. Some states define felony to mean any crime that a person is sent to a State prison. Other states refuse to define crimes at all. However, most states agree with the federal government, concluding that felonies are crimes that require more than one year in prison.

The federal government breaks the term “felony” into five different classifications, from a Class A felony to a Class E felony. Here are what the different classifications mean to the federal government:

  • Class A Felony: The defendant receives life in prison or the death penalty.
  • Class B Felony: The defendant is convicted of more than 25 years in prison.
  • Class C Felony: The defendant is convicted of less than 25 years in prison but more than ten years in prison.
  • Class D Felony: The defendant is convicted of less than ten years in prison but more than five years in prison.
  • Class E Felony: The defendant is convicted of less than five years in prison but more than one year in prison.

The crimes that are defined as felonies include violent crimes and other serious crimes. Typically, felonies are crimes that have injured another person seriously, or crimes that have financially harmed another entity. These crimes include:

Murder: The average jail sentence for murder is 16.5 years. Aggravated assault: The average jail sentence for rape is 9.8 years. Manslaughter: The average jail sentence for involuntary manslaughter is one year. The average jail sentence for voluntary manslaughter is four years. Animal cruelty: The average jail sentence for animal cruelty is three years. Arson: The average jail sentence for arson is between one and 20 years. Burglary: The average jail sentence for burglary is three years in prison.

The highest jail sentence ever given was to an Oklahoma man named Charles Scott Robinson. Robinson was convicted of raping six children and was given 5,000 years in prison for each child harmed. The man now faces 30,000 years in prison.

Burglar Holding Crowbar backlit by car lights.

Penalties for Property Crime

The penalty for property crime, specifically possession of stolen goods, can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. The severity of the crime depends on the item in question and the situations surrounding the offense. Typically, for having a stolen item in a person’s possession, the person will be fined the cost of the item and spends a month or two in jail. This simple crime is a misdemeanor. However, if a person is found with a stolen credit card (regardless of whether the card was used), the person will face much steeper fines and over a year in prison.

Of course, the original thief will face more time in prison and more fees than the individual who purchased the stolen item. If you are willing to cooperate with the county sheriff’s police to find the original thief, you may be able to decrease your personal sentence.

The four types of penalties that you can face for having committed a property crime are:

  • Fines. The most common penalty for being involved in property crime (either stealing or being in possession of stolen goods) is a fine. Fines can be $200 or higher, depending on the original cost of the stolen item. In most cases, the defendant will be asked to pay back the full cost of the stolen item and return the item.
  • Restitution. When a person is convicted of property crime, they are typically required to pay restitution. Restitution means that the person will need to pay the owner of the stolen item in order to make up for the loss of the item. The owner of the stolen item may set this fee, or the court could set the fee to be the cost of the item.
  • Probation. A jury may give a person who is guilty of property crime a probation period. During this time, the person must meet regularly with a probation officer and refrain from committing other crimes during this time. If a person doesn’t follow the rules of probation, they are required to serve jail time.
  • Jail Time. In more serious cases, the perpetrator may be required to serve jail time. Depending on the item that was stolen, the perpetrator may spend only a few days in prison to several years in prison.
Broken Window. Outside can be seen a line of apartments, some trees, and the blue sky with a few clouds in it.

What Should I Do If I Own Stolen Property?

If you realize that you have stolen items in your possession, the best thing you can do is to call the police, file a police report, and tell the police exactly what happened. Typically, the court system will reward honesty, especially if the individual confessed without coercing. And if you want to protect your own property, alarm systems are the best ways to protect your home.

If you fear that you may be prosecuted for property crime, you should immediately call your defense attorney. They will be able to guide you through the process of either returning the item and settling the offense outside of court, or they will guide you through the court process.

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