Is It Stealing If You Didn’t Think It Was?

Could you go to jail for bringing home someone’s old table or bike that is left by the side of the road? Could you be stealing, or committing “larceny,” without knowing it?

A recent Massachusetts S.J.C. decision, Commonwealth v. Liebenow, held that to prove larceny, the Commonwealth must show that a defendant (1) took and carried away (2) someone else’s property, (3) with a specific, subjective intent to steal the property. See Commonwealth v. Liebenow, S.J.C., No. 11593, slip. op (November 25, 2014); see also G. L. c. 266, § 30(1). This means that for an action to be larceny, the defendant must know that the property was owned by someone else at the time he took it. A mistaken— but honest—belief that the defendant had a legal right to the property negates the intent requirement for larceny. Even an unreasonable mistake of fact can entitle the defendant to an acquittal. The defendant only needs to show his subjective belief regarding the property.

In Liebenow, the defendant was a scrap metal collector and dealer. He was accused of larceny after he removed remnants of metal pipe and steel sheets from the outskirts of a construction site that had “no trespassing” signs posted. The defendant claimed that he took the metal only because he believed that it was abandoned, as the materials were separate from the actual construction, in an area where people had previously dumped trash and junk.

The judge at trial convicted the defendant of larceny, stating that the defendant’s “honest belief” that the metal was abandoned was “not relevant” as a defense. Id.

On appeal, the S.J.C. disagreed and reversed the conviction.

The S.J.C. stated that while the reasonableness of a defendant’s belief can be a consideration for the jury in deciding whether a defendant honestly held a certain belief, reasonableness is not required. The intent element of larceny is specific intent to take someone else’s property. An honest belief that you have a legal claim to something is a defense to larceny—even if you are mistaken.

What about that table or bike sitting by the side of the road? Abandoned property is property “to which the owner has relinquished all right, title, claim, and possession, but without vesting it in any other person.” Id. at 18. If you have an honest belief that your gently used table or bike was abandoned, you may have a good defense against charges of larceny.

Like larceny, other criminal charges have very precise requirements, or elements, which the Commonwealth must prove. The attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. can help you or your loved ones identify weaknesses in charges being brought against you, and use them to strengthen your defense. The facts of each situation are unique. If you have questions, call today.

The purpose of this article is to inform our clients of developments in the law and to provide information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or to assume a client relationship. The content of this article could be considered advertising under the rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Copyright © 2012 Hutchins Law, P.C. All Rights Reserved.