In New York, in order to be charged and convicted of a theft-related crime, it generally must be alleged that the defendant stole the property from an “owner” of that property. In other words, you can’t steal property from someone who doesn’t own that property, and you can’t steal property that rightfully belongs to you. This makes all the sense in the world, and doesn’t seem like it could ever lead to any ambiguity. However, it often does, particularly in the context of family and other close personal relationships. This entry will address when the “ownership” threshold is satisfied for the NYPD, other police officers or any branch of law enforcement to make an arrest and the respective District Attorney have sufficient evidence to prosecute the crime of either Petit Larceny, New York Penal Law 155.25, or any degree of Grand Larceny.
In People v. Favors, 2017 NY Slip Op 07632 (3d Dept. 2017), the appellate court recently had to grapple with the issue of who was the “owner” of a cell phone that was taken by the person who purchased the phone and paid the phone bill from the person who it had been given to for use day-to-day. The Court held that “ownership is not limited to the title owner of the property. Rather, it is enough that [the victim] have a right to possession of the property superior to that of the thief.” What this means is that just because one person purchased an item and gave it to another person as a gift, does not give the purchaser the right to go take it back over the receiver’s objection. That will be considered a theft in New York. Importantly, specifically with regard to cell phones, just because the purchaser is also paying the phone bill and the phone plan is in the purchaser’s name, does not necessarily give the purchaser a right to that phone that is greater than the receiver. Just the opposite, the person who received the cell phone as a gift will be considered the “owner” of the phone even if the person who gave them the phone pays the phone bill and has the phone plan in his or her name. Its worth noting, that this “rule” is not a blanket one and is nuanced by the specific facts and evidence of a particular incident or case.
It is easy to imagine a sensible, intelligent person coming the exactly the opposite conclusion in their day-to-day life. Not knowing that this is how the courts in New York will view a situation like this can lead to a significant misunderstanding that can result in drastic, unexpected consequences. Thinking that you are going into an ex-girlfriend’s home to retrieve your cell phone, and turning around to find that you are facing felony Burglary charges, pursuant to New York Penal Law 140.25, can be quite a shock. Having an criminal attorney who not only understands the law surrounding this issue, but also understands the real-world, practical circumstances that many people in this kind of situation face is critical and you should without question consult with your lawyer should you face any similar allegation.
To learn more about theft-related crimes in New York, follow the links found in this entry.
Crotty Saland PC is a New York criminal defense firm with founding partners previously serving as prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The New York theft defense lawyers at Crotty Saland PC protect the rights of the accused in theft-related arrests throughout the City of New York as well as the counties of Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess.