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New York Grand Larceny and Stolen Property Felonies: Can Value of Goods and Property be Established at Trial without Expert Testimony

Every element of every crime is equally important. Irrespective of the charge you face, prosecutors in New York City, Westchester County or anywhere else in the State of New York must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. This is no different if you you are charged with Grand Larceny as codified in Article 150 of the New York Penal Law or a violent offense of Assault as codified in Article 120 of the New York Penal Law. Addressing the former offense of Grand Larceny, one of the elements that an Assistant District Attorney must prove to a jury or a judge at trial is that the value of the alleged property you allegedly stole exceeds either $1,000.00, $3,000.00, $50,000.00 or $1,000,000.00. Simply, value is an essential element of any Grand Larceny crime that your criminal lawyer or criminal defense attorney will vigorously challenge. If a judge or jury agrees with you, as opposed to the prosecutor, then either the trial will end in an acquittal or a conviction for a lesser criminal offense. Where a case involves cash or money, your attorney’s task may be quite difficult, but how is value assessed (or challenged) when the value of the property in question is not easily quantified?

In People v. Helms, 2014 NY Slip Op 5374 ( 3rd Dept. 2014), the defendant was accused of Grand Larceny in the Third Degree (New York Penal Law 155.35), Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Third Degree (New York Penal Law 165.50) and Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (New York Penal Law 155.30). Without going into too much detail, a person is guilty of NY PL 155.35 and NY PL 165.50 if they steal or possess stolen property respectively and the value of that property exceeds $3,000.00. The lesser NY PL 155.30 requires that the value of the property exceed $1,000.00. In terms of potential incarceration and sentences, the “D” felonies of Grand Larceny in the Third Degree and Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Third Degree each carry up to seven years in prison while Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree only (that, of course, is relative) carries a possible maximum sentence of four years in prison.

Back to the case above, the issues presented on appeal was whether or not a lay person (a non-expert) could establish the value of the property (it was numerous pieces of jewelry) sufficiently for a jury to then determine whether the value elements were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, must an expert testify that each piece of jewelry was worth “X” or could the owner of that property establish that value?

In response to this issue, the Court stated as follows:

“[V]alue is defined as ‘the market value of the property at the time and place of the crime, or if such cannot be satisfactorily ascertained, the cost of replacement of the property within a reasonable time after the crime’ (Penal Law [] 155.20 [1]; see People v Adams, 8 AD3d 893, 893-894 [2004]People v Sheehy, 274 AD2d 844, 845 [2000], lv denied 95 NY2d 938 [2000]). ‘In determining the value of stolen property, the jury need only have a reasonable, rather than speculative, basis for inferring that the value exceeded’ the statutory requirement (People v Adams, 8 AD3d at 894see People v Sheehy, 274 AD2d at 845).”

In this particular case, the Court found that the evidence was sufficient where the owner of the stolen jewelry testified to the value of each piece. Further, the complainant testified she frequently purchased jewelry and value the jewelry based on the purchase price, research conducted online and through her mother, and catalogs (much of this was likely hearsay and should not have been admissible, but it appears the criminal defense attorney did not object at the time). Additionally, the Court recognized that:
“[A]ny deficiency in the victim’s testimony regarding the condition of the items was alleviated by the fact that all of the pieces of jewelry were admitted into evidence and available for the jury to inspect and review (see People v McPherson, 286 AD2d 616, 616 [2001], lv denied 97 NY2d 685 [2001]; People v Mayerhofer, 283 AD2d 672, 675 [2001]). Contrary to defendant’s contention, expert testimony was not required, inasmuch as ‘opinion testimony by a lay witness is competent to establish the value of the property if the witness is acquainted with the value of similar property’ (People v Sheehy, 274 AD2d at 845; see People v Adams, 8 AD3d at 894; see also People v Bravo, 295 AD2d 213, 214 [2002], lv denied 99 NY2d 556 [2002]).”
Well, there you have it. Is expert testimony mandatory in every case involving subjective value of property? Clearly, the answer is no. While a Grand Larceny case will likely be easier to challenge where expert testimony is lacking, your criminal lawyer cannot merely expect that no expert equates to no viable criminal charges. Yes, each case will likely turn on the facts and evidence presented, but courts will allow a finder of fact to make their determination without an expert. The strength of that case may rest on your defense attorney’s ability to poke holes in and damage the credibility of the non-expert’s value based conclusions.
The New York Grand Larceny lawyers and theft defense attorneys at Crotty Saland PC represent clients in all larceny related matters from misdemeanor offenses of shoplifting to felony crimes alleging embezzlement. Prior to establishing the law practice, the partners at Crotty Saland PC served collectively in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the United States Attorney’s Office.
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