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Larceny of Common Property: Can You Steal Property that is Jointly Owned?

As an experienced New York criminal defense attorney serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and the surrounding counties such as Westchester, I am routinely confronted with legal question surrounding New York Grand Larceny crimes and other New York larceny laws and theft laws. In today’s blog post I want to address one of the more ‘weird’ legal situations that arises when a joint property owners “steals” commonly owned property from the other party he or she shares ownership.

To avoid confusion at the outset, let’s pause a moment and allow me to share a little Legal Property 101. Under the common law, there are different types of ownership rights one can have in property. Obviously the most basic is full ownership by a single person. However, more than one person may own one piece of property. When referring to land (real property) we usually call this a concurrent estate or co-tenancy. Now, there are different subsets of concurrent estates that vary in different jurisdictions, but their definition and consequences on ownership rights go beyond what we need to know here. For purposes of our discussion, when I refer to “joint” or “common” ownership of property I mean property over which each individual owner has an equal and undivided right of possession in that property. Each owner is entitled to have and use the property. It does not matter if that property is a car, bank account or computer.

With that cleared up, the question still remains: Where one co-owner takes property from another co-owner, can the taker be charged with larceny? The answer is unequivocally, “no.” This is a long-standing common law rule (a law that is established over time through the case law) that has been codified in the New York Penal Law under 155.00(5). This section of the larceny statute states that “[a] joint or common owner of property shall not be deemed to have a right of possession thereto superior to that of any other joint or common owner thereof.” What is this about superior right of possession, you ask? Well, “owner” is defined as anyone with a right of possession superior to the taker (NY PL ยง 155.00(5)). Larceny, of course, is a wrongful taking of property from an “owner.” Therefore, if common owners have an equal right of ownership (that is, neither has a superior right of possession) then neither can commit an act of larceny against the other. But, you protest inquisitively, if they both have an ownership right and one has taken the property from the other how can the law turn a blind eye? Fret not, because while the New York criminal law may not punish the joint-owner-taker, the civil law will provide the other co-owner with an opportunity for remedy.

Some real life examples will help to further solidify these concepts. One such example is from a 2000 Bronx County criminal court case: People v. Brown, 185 Misc. 2d 326. The case stemmed from a fight between the defendant (Mr. Brown) and his girlfriend. The two had lived together, and decided to buy a car. Mr. Brown made the first payment, but the legal title to the car was placed in the name of his girlfriend Ms. Lindo, who’s father cosigned for the car loan. Mr. Brown and Ms. Lindo both shared the car for several months. Things took a turn when Mr. Brown failed to make payments on the car. Ms. Lindo took sole possession of the car. However, one day, in a fit of anger, the defendant took the car and wrecked it by deliberately driving it into a light pole. Mr. Brown was charged with “Unauthorized use of a Vehicle,” which is closely related to Larceny. Regardless, the Court dismissed the unauthorized use charge and went on to say that had Mr. Brown been charged with Grand Larceny the court would have acquitted the defendant because he was an “equitable co-owner of the car along with Ms. Lindo” and thus he could not “consciously intend to deprive the “owner” of the car.” Thus, Ms. Lindo was forced to use the Civil Courts to get a monetary reward for the “theft” and the damages Mr. Brown caused of the co-owned car.

The real bottom line here, as this case illustrates, is that when it comes to a “stealing” of co-owned property, the criminal courts may not be the proper avenue for justice. Case law and statutes make it clear that, depending on the circumstance, a co-owner cannot be charged with larceny for taking the co-owned property…with a small little caveat. Are you, as the accused, truly a co-owner? That is an entirely different question that may completely transform the viability of a criminal case.

To educate yourself further about New York theft crime and New York larceny laws, please review the NewYorkTheftAndLarcenyLawyers.Com website or this blog. Additionally, the New York criminal lawyers at Crotty Saland PC offer readers other tremendous resources in our NewYorkCriminalLawyerBlog.Com and CrottySaland.Com. The former is a blog that contains insight not only on criminal statutes, but cases deciphering the laws and analysis of criminal cases in the New York City area news.

Founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors, the New York criminal defense attorneys at Crotty Saland PC represent the accused throughout the New York City region.

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