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Knowingly Possessing Stolen Property: The Criminal Defense of Knowledge to a NY Stolen Property Arrest

In New York, one need not necessarily commit theft to be charged with a crime involving larceny. In fact, a New York criminal lawyer experienced in theft offenses can explain how in some circumstances, mere possession of stolen property is sufficient to establish the basis of a theft or larceny arrest. Under New York Penal Law 165.40 (Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Fifth Degree), it is a crime for a person to knowingly possess stolen property for the purpose of benefiting himself or another. Under the same law, it is also a crime for a person to knowingly possess stolen property for the purpose of preventing the owner from recovering that property. Like many of New York’s larceny laws, the range of consequences a defendant will face for possessing stolen property can vary widely, often depending upon the nature of the property itself. As we’ve previously discussed, if the stolen property exceeds certain dollar values, or falls within a specific class of items, the defendant might not be charged with a simple misdemeanor, but rather, a much more serious felony (NY PL 165.45 through NY PL 165.54). While the ramifications of a misdemeanor Criminal Possession of Stolen Property arrest in New York is serious, the gravity of the felony crimes are that much more.

Pursuant to New York criminal law, all offenses related to possession of stolen property share one element in particular that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt: a defendant must knowingly possess the stolen property upon which the charge is based. Given this language, it might be assumed that if a person knows he or she is in possession of a certain piece of property, and that property is stolen, he or she must be guilty of possessing stolen property. As a skilled defense attorney will inform you, however, this interpretation is not entirely accurate. While it may seem like a somewhat basic question on its surface, whether a defendant “knowingly possesses” stolen property is a question that your criminal attorney may be able to argue strongly in your favor.

In People v. Nowakowski, the court addressed the issue of what a defendant must be aware of in order to “knowingly possess” stolen property within the meaning of the statute. In this case, the defendant purchased a seemingly ordinary set of tires from an unnamed seller. Although it was never shown that he had any knowledge of it, prosecutors later alleged that the tires were actually stolen merchandise, of which the defendant was now in possession. For his role as an innocent consumer in the heist, prosecutors charged Nowakowski with Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the 5th Degree, a misdemeanor.

At trial, the prosecution submitted no evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the defendant knew the tires he had purchased were stolen. Rather, the State sought to convict Nowakowski for merely buying and possessing goods that someone else had stolen. Despite the prosecution’s failure to provide any actual proof of the element of “knowing possession,” Nowakowski was still convicted for possessing stolen property.

This defendant, however, was merely the innocent victim of a thief’s deception regarding the origin of the merchandise. For this reason, Nowakowski wisely appealed his conviction. In reviewing the defendant’s appeal, the Court drew a simple, yet critically important distinction in its interpretation of the statute. It explained that, under the law, it was insufficient for the prosecution to merely prove that a defendant possessed stolen property. Rather, the prosecution must also introduce evidence that a defendant has knowledge of the property’s stolen character. Therefore, showing that Nowakowski merely possessed stolen property was insufficient to convict him of the crime for which he was charged.

In reversing the lower court’s judgment, the Court focused upon the prosecution’s failure to submit, “direct or circumstantial proof of actual knowledge. . .that [the] defendant actually knew that the tires which he purchased were stolen.” It explained that although the defendant may have been careless, negligent, or even lazy in investigating the source of the merchandise, this could not be used as a substitute for guilty knowledge on the part of the defendant that he had purchased stolen merchandise. In essence, your lack of knowledge or failure to inquire as to whether property might be stolen, on its own, may be insufficient to convict you for possessing stolen property. Rather, prosecutors must show that you actually knew the property you possessed was stolen.

While the above case is merely one of many addressing Criminal Possession of Stolen Property that you criminal lawyer may utilize for your defense, it is an important one. Keep in mind, however, that it may not be applicable to all offenses. For example, if you steal a purse that contains a credit card, certain aspects of your knowledge are relatively insignificant. As long as the prosecution can establish your intention to steal that purse, they need not establish your knowledge that it contained a credit card or intent to steal the same. Because of the countless criminal statutes and legal decisions that interpret New York’s theft and larceny laws, having a firm understanding to these crimes is the first step in any defense.

Founded by two New York criminal defense attorneys who served collectively for more than a dozen years as prosecutors in Robert Morgenthau’s Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Crotty Saland PC represents those accused of all New York theft crimes and larceny offenses throughout the New York City area.

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