Receiving Stolen Property: Buying Property From Strangers or Unknown Sources: What You Dont Know Definitely Can Hurt You
By: Edward Martinovich, Attorney at Law and Natalie Banach
As the trend from front-yard garage sales to internet-based auction sites continues, today’s consumers are finding more and more obscure and unique items online. What they may not know however, is that these items can also sometimes be stolen goods. The recent online trend of purchasing hard-to-find items at bargain prices is not only an opportunity for budding entrepreneurs to market their goods, but also a chance for some to purge their stolen property. The complexities of this new phenomenon can thus raise a variety of legal questions regarding ownership and responsibility. When stolen property is purchased and law enforcement personnel conclude their investigation at your doorstop, not only can the police immediately seize the goods that were paid for, but you may also be charged with a criminal offense. The criminal charges of buying or receiving stolen property or possession of stolen property generally involves taking possession of property with knowledge that it has been obtained through theft, embezzlement, fraud, larceny or extortion by someone else. Therefore, generally speaking, conviction depends on two factors: gaining control of the item and knowing it was stolen at the time it was received. The criminal intent may be inferred if these two factors can be proven. The difficulty with situations involving the purchase of items over the internet or even through the classified section of a local newspaper is that one has to prove they did not know the item was stolen. In fact, the police assume a buyer should know when they are buying stolen property because there are often suspicious circumstances surrounding the sale (i.e., the seller only accepts money orders, the payment address is different from the location address or the price seems too good to be true). In an attempt to stop trafficking and fencing operations, buying stolen property in itself has been defined as a criminal offense. Receiving, concealing, possessing, buying or transferring are usually the acts associated with crimes of fencing (acting as a middleman) or trafficking in stolen goods. What complicates the legal situation even further is the fact that the police cannot always determine whether one buyer is part of the illegal operation or just an innocent buyer. Consequently, the laws in this area tend to be quite strict and usually favor the original owner/victim. It is important to note that paying for the stolen goods or intending to collect the reward for returning them are generally not valid defenses. Therefore, if the police charge someone with buying stolen property and the accused cannot prove that they didn’t know it was stolen at the time of purchase, they can face a myriad of consequences, both in criminal law and perhaps civil law as well.
Consequences of Receiving Stolen Property
Some of these consequences include county jail or commitment to state prison, with a term of probation or parole thereafter, restitution of the value of the item(s) stolen made to the victim, and court fines. Therefore, it is always best to consult an attorney licensed to practice law in the jurisdiction where the incident occurred or where the case is pending to guide you through the complex maze of the criminal justice system.
Criminal Prosecution for Purchasing Stolen Property
In some instances, prior to charges being filed or thereafter, a smart and experienced attorney may be able to convince the prosecutor not to file criminal charges or to file less serious charges than originally anticipated. In other cases, the case will be fought in court and may possibly go to trial if a satisfactory resolution cannot be reached. If the case goes to trial, the prosecution generally will have to prove three elements: (1) that the accused gained control of the item, (2) that the accused knew it was stolen and (3) that the accused intended to deprive the rightful owner of their interest in the property. If there is a conviction after trial, the consequences that follow depend upon the state law controlling the case and whether the conviction was for a misdemeanor or a felony charge. In some states, if the value of the property stolen is more than $100, that can form the basis for a felony. In some states, the threshold amount is a value greater than $400. So you can see based upon the above, it is always in the consumer’s best interest to be extremely cautious when purchasing items from unknown sources or from strangers. Consider the following tips as good steps to take before completing any transactions:
- Avoid transactions where the seller asks only that payment be made by a money order or an instant money transfer.
- Avoid transactions where the payment address is different from the location address.
- Be careful about giving out banking information and details.
- Find out as much as possible about the seller. Read the seller’s trading history and feedback reviews. Also, if you’re still uneasy, contact the seller with remaining questions.
- Avoid sellers who take a long time to reply to questions or who try to persuade you to trade offline.
- If the item is expensive, use a credible escrow service so that you have time to look over the goods and approve them before paying the seller.
If you happen to be the subject of a criminal investigation or a criminal prosecution, it would be in your best interest to consult with a licensed attorney who is experienced in cases of this type. It is not the best idea to try to negotiate with law enforcement or the prosecutor without an attorney beside you to protect your interests.
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