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Defining “Owner” in a New York Grand Larceny or Petit Larceny Case

Whether it is a shoplifting arrest for New York Penal Law 155.25 or an Embezzlement arrest for Second Degree Grand Larceny – New York Penal Law 155.40, there are certain critical elements that are fluid or consistent amongst all New York theft and larceny crimes. Certainly, your New York criminal lawyer or defense attorney will analyze the evidence in each allegation and apply the applicable law to determine whether or not the prosecution is able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, but some of that analysis will be the same across all theft arrests. In non-legal terms, your counsel will seek to refute or challenge an Assistant District Attorney’s allegation that you took property from another person who had a superior right of possession and did so for your own benefit or to prevent the owner from retrieving it. Keep in mind that while value is directly related to the degree of the crime, it is not a requirement to prove a base level larceny.

If you noticed above, I used the terms “superior right” and “owner” when describing the elements of a Grand Larceny or Petit Larceny crime or arrest. Are these terms interchangeable? What is an “owner?”

The law is very clear. New York Penal Law 155.00(5) defines the term “owner.” According to New York law, an “owner,” in part, is any person who has a right to possession thereof superior to that of the taker, obtainer or withholder.” So, how do the courts determine who has the superior right? If “owner” is not a literal term, then beyond a few words in a statute, how do courts interpret this definition? Shedding some light on this term, New York’s State’s top court, the Court of Appeals, has addressed this terminology and applied it the law on multiple occasions.

One case where the Court has shared its insight into the foundation of a larceny crime as it pertains to “owner” was People v. Hutchinson, 56 N.Y.2d 868 (1982). There, the Court grappled on appeal whether a jury had the proper evidence and instructions before them as to the “owner” prong of a larceny offense. There, prosecutors alleged that the accused robbed a bank. At trial, instead of claiming the victim and “owner” of the property, a/k/a, the money, was the bank, a specific individual was identified. Further, money was taken from to tellers. In response, the defense argued that in order to be found guilty of any type of theft, the prosecution needed to establish that this person was in fact the “owner” of the property. Further, if the money was taken from two individuals, shouldn’t the prosecution be required to have two “owners?” The Court found that:

“The jury was charged in the language of the statute, which did not require proof here that [the individual] had an independent right of possession but only that he had a possessory right which, however limited or contingent, was superior to that of defendant. Because the proof was uncontradicted that [the individual] was an employee of the bank it cannot be said that the jury was not warranted in concluding that as such employee he had a right of possession superior to that of defendant, who had no right of possession whatsoever. In this view it is immaterial that the proof was that the bank’s money came from the drawer of two other tellers.”

Whether you are a New York theft lawyer or a person with no experience in the criminal justice system, this decision and its overall value or meaning should be fairly easy to follow. “Owner” is not a literal term. If someone has a right to possession that is greater than yours, whether or not he or she is the actual owner, one of many owners or merely a person who is just a custodian, then this initial requirement is satisfied. Whether the theft is alleged from a co-owner, partner, or some similarly situated person, well, then…you will just have to read our other blog entries that deals with this and other theft issues.

To better understand the intricacies and elements that make up New York’s theft and larceny crimes and laws, review the links above as well as the blogs and websites below.

Crotty Saland PC, a New York criminal defense firm representing clients throughout the New York City area, was established by two former Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys.

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