Penal Code Section 496 makes it a crime to knowingly buy, sell, receive conceal or withhold property that has been stolen. The key word here is “knowingly”. In order for the prosecution to prove that a crime has been committed, they must be able to prove that you knew that the property was stolen when you receive or took possession of it.
To explain a little further, in California, the state must essentially show that the person receiving the property knew, or reasonably SHOULD have known, that the property was stolen. So, if someone buys something that has a value of $5,000.00 but was able to purchase it for $250.00, this would be a “red flag” and may provide evidence for the prosecution that the person knew or “should have known.”
So what are some of the ways the prosecution can prove someone knew that the property was stolen. Obviously, confessions or statements at the time of the arrest or when being questioned would help the prosecutions case. But, where there is no confession or incriminating statements, the prosecution relies on the circumstances surrounding the arrest. Suspicious activities may include:
1. That you helped to conceal the stolen property;
2. As mentioned above, the price was way too low;
3. Any identifying marks or numbers on the property have been scratched off; and
4. Cash was used to purchase the property.
There are defenses to receiving stolen property which your criminal defense attorney should consider and may include the following:
1. One of the more obvious defenses is that you didn’t know that the property was stolen and that you believed that you were legitimately purchasing the item or property.
2. A less common defense would be that you believed that the property or item already belonged to you.
3. Another defense may be that you didn’t know that you possessed the property. To explain, maybe someone else placed the stolen property in your car, home or room without your knowledge in order to conceal it.
These defenses must be accompanied with a “good faith belief”. In other words, while it may have been obvious to someone else that the property was stolen, you, in good faith truly did not know or believe it to be so. A jury will determine whether or not you acted in good faith based upon all the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the property and the circumstances surrounding the arrest.
It’s important to note that if you unknowingly receive stolen property but later find out it was stolen, you may still be charged with the crime unless you return the property to the owner or police. Further, if you knowingly receive or purchase the stolen property and then decide later to return it, you may still be charged with the crime of receiving stolen property.
Receiving stolen property can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. This is referred to as a “wobbler” and how it’s filed will depend upon the circumstances and your criminal history.
A conviction of misdemeanor receiving stolen property may result in up to 1 year in county jail and a $1,000.00 fine. A felony conviction may result in 16 months or two or three years in state prison and up to $10,000.00 in fines.
Consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney in the county in which the case is pending should always be the first step if you have been arrested or accused of this or any criminal activity.