Under California Penal Code section 496, a California resident is guilty of receiving stolen property if he or she buys, receives, conceals, sells, or withholds from the owner property that is known to be stolen. This includes a wide range of “stolen property,” including property obtained by theft (either grand or petty theft), embezzlement, or extortion.
If the total value of the stolen property is $950 or less, it is always charged as a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor charge is punishable by up to one year in county jail and/or fines of up to $1,000. However, receiving stolen property is a “wobbler” under California law, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the case and the offender’s criminal history. Receiving stolen property as a felony is punishable by 16 months, two years, or three years in county jail, as well as possible fines up to $10,000.
In order to prove that you are guilty of receiving stolen property, the prosecutor must prove that:
- You bought, sold, received, concealed, or withheld from the owner (or aided in doing any of these things) any property that was obtained through stealing or extortion. It counts as stolen property if it was obtained through theft, larceny, embezzlement, false pretenses, tricks, burglary, or robbery.
- You knew the property had been stolen or otherwise obtained unlawfully. This is an extremely important element of the crime of receiving stolen property; in order to be convicted, you must have known that the property was stolen.
- You knew the presence of the property. In other words, it cannot have been placed on you or in your possession without your knowledge (including placed in your house or car by someone else).
There are several common defenses to charges of receiving stolen property. However, it is extremely important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney right away to find out what defense strategy is appropriate for your situation. Common defenses against these charges include:
- Lack of knowledge the property was stolen. An extremely important part of proving that you received stolen property is proving that you knew the property was stolen. The circumstances surrounding the property may lead you to believe it was stolen (e.g. a used car salesman selling a nearly-new convertible for $3,000), but this is not necessarily enough to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew it was stolen.
- Lack of knowledge of possession of the property. If you did not know the property was in your care, you cannot be found guilty of receiving stolen property. If the stolen property was placed in your car or home by someone else without your knowledge, you may not be convicted of receiving the property. A family member, roommate, or significant other may plant the property to get you into trouble or to cover up their own involvement in the theft, but this does not make you guilty of receiving stolen property.
- Innocent intent: If you planned to return it to the rightful owner or bring it to the police at the time you received the stolen property (and you can convince the court that this was the case), you can avoid charges of receiving stolen property. However, this defense will not apply if you intended to keep the property when you received it and later change your mind; it will also not apply if you intended to return the property when you received it but later changed your mind and kept it.
Voluntary intoxication. California law allows you to be punished for criminal activity if you were voluntarily intoxicated by drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense. However, your impaired state of mind can be a way to show the court that you did not have the mental presence or criminal intent to commit the crime of receiving stolen property. If the drugs or alcohol prevented you from being able to realize the items were stolen, you may be able to avoid conviction.