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When Does Accidental Possession Turn To Theft?

In Florida, a charge of theft can be difficult for criminal defendants to understand, particularly in edge cases where the circumstances surrounding the purported theft are atypical.  Quite often, defendants are confused as to how theft applies to situations in which an item is not so much stolen as it is accidentally possessed.  To better understand the point at which mere accidental possession transforms into theft, it will be beneficial to examine the foundational Florida law concerning theft — let’s take a quick look.

Florida Theft Law

Section 812.014(1) of the Florida Statutes governs the crime of theft.  Pursuant to the theft statute…

A person can be held liable for theft if he or she knowingly obtains or uses, or endeavors to obtain or use the property of another with intent to: a) deprive that other person of their property, or b) appropriate the property to his or her own use, or to the use of any person not entitled to it.

To put it simply, under Florida law, a person commits theft whether or not they end up benefitting from use of the property themselves.  If a defendant knowingly obtains or uses another’s property just to deprive the other person from the use/benefit of their property, then that action qualifies as theft.  The criminal intent need not involve self-enrichment.  Deprivation of property from its rightful owner is enough.

What does “obtains or uses” mean, exactly?  Section 812.012(3) provides further clarification on this matter.  Pursuant to the statute, a person obtains or uses the property of another if he or she: a) takes or exercises control over the property at-issue; b) disposes, transfers, or uses the property without authorization; or c) makes false promises, willful misrepresentations, or commits fraud so as to obtain such property.

Florida theft law therefore applies to a wide range of situations.  For example, a carpenter who makes a false promise so as to manipulate one of their buyers into paying them extra could be held criminally liable for theft.  More typically, a straightforward taking of property could open up the possessor to criminal liability under the theft statute.

Fundamentally, however, Florida law requires that the defendant have evidenced specific criminal intent in order for liability to attach.

The Criminal Intent Requirement

Recall that section 812.014(1) requires that the defendant knowingly commits theft.  Florida case law further confirms this criminal intent requirement for theft liability.

As the Florida District Court of Appeals wrote in Stramaglia v. State (1992), “Even though a promise to perform in the future may serve as the basis of a theft, a necessary element of theft under Florida law is that the defendant must have the specific intent to commit the theft at the time of the…taking.”  The Fourth District Court of Appeals reiterated this holding in several other cases, including Yerrick v. State (2008) and Huggins v. State (2012).

Determining whether the defendant had specific criminal intent is a highly fact-based issue.  For example, in Huggins, the court found that the defendant — a contractor who took a down payment on a construction contract — did not evidence the requisite criminal intent for theft because he showed up to work the very next day after he received the down payment.  The court then surmised that if the defendant were to be subject to any liability, it might be civil liability for inadequate performance of the contract, not criminal liability for theft.

As such, an accidental possession of property turns into theft when the defendant evidences a specific criminal intent to commit theft — the fact that such possession was truly accidental obviates the possibility of criminal liability for theft under Florida law.  Even if the accidental possession of property caused serious financial damage to another person, it cannot lead to theft liability without specific criminal intent.

If you are concerned about a possible theft charge, call 941-404-8919 as soon as possible to speak with experienced Sarasota criminal defense attorneys at the Fowler Law Group today.

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