In a previous entry, we discussed how the value of stolen property frequently effects the seriousness of the charge that a defendant will face in a New York larceny, theft or stolen property arrest. In this entry, the New York criminal defense attorneys at Saland Law PC will elaborate on that topic, discussing how the value of multiple pieces of stolen property can impact the degree of Grand Larceny or Criminal Possession of Stolen Property a defendant will face. Under New York Penal Law 165.45, it is a Class E felony for a person to knowingly possess stolen property valued more than $1000, but not greater than $3,000. Further, this possession must include an intent to benefit himself or a person other than the owner. If the defendant possesses stolen property valued at less than $1,000, he or she will likely be charged with a misdemeanor of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Fifth Degree (New York Penal Law 165.40). If the value of the property is greater than $1,000, however, the charge can escalate to a number of potential felonies beyond the Fourth Degree. The language of this statute raises an extremely valid question: if the defendant possesses numerous pieces of stolen property belonging to multiple owners, can the total value of the property be used to support a single charge, or must the value of each be used to support separate charges, based upon individual owners?
Although seemingly insignificant, your criminal lawyer will explain that knowing the answer to this question can sometimes prove relevant to your case. Imagine a circumstance where prosecutors allege that a defendant is acting as a “fence,” a person in the business of buying stolen property. This defendant is alleged to be in possession of several stolen items: a television valued at $300, a bicycle valued at $600, and a laptop valued at $500. Each piece of property belongs to a different owner. If prosecutors base their charge upon the total value of the items in the defendant’s possession, the value of the stolen property is in excess of $1,000 and the defendant will face a felony. If the language of the statute requires, however, that the charges be separated by individual owners of the property, the defendant possesses three items worth less than $1,000. As such, he or she will only be charged with three misdemeanors. Addressing this exact issue, the court in People v. Loret 136 A.D.2d 316 (4th Dept. 1988) considered whether prosecutors may aggregate the value of stolen property or if each charge must be based upon the property’s individual owner.
In Loret, the defendant was found to be in possession of a number of stolen items. The items did not belong to a single person, but rather, to four separate owners. Because the aggregate value of this property was greater than $1,000, prosecutors charged him with a single violation of New York Penal 165.45, a Class E felony punishable by as much as four years in state prison. Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the charge. In his motion, the defendant argued that under NY PL 165.45 (Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Fourth Degree), it is a crime for a person to knowingly possess stolen property. Under New York law, the term “stolen property” is defined under the crime of larceny. Because the crime of larceny specifically requires that stolen property be taken from a single owner, prosecutors cannot aggregate the value of items stolen from multiple owners to charge a defendant with a single larceny offense. Rather, prosecutors must charge a defendant with separate crimes based upon the individual owner of each piece of stolen property.
The defendant argued that, because NY PL 165.45 shares the same definition of “stolen property” as larceny, the same should hold true for this offense. The trial court agreed with the defendant’s argument, concluding that possession of property stolen from various owners cannot be aggregated to form a single charge of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property. Prosecutors appealed this decision.
In evaluating the judgment, the Court began by explaining that the defendant’s argument placed undue reliance upon the singular use of the word “owner” within the larceny statute. Under General Construction Law § 35, words in a statute written in the singular are meant to include the plural, and words in the plural are meant to include the singular. This rule applies to every statute, barring limited exceptions.
Next, the Court highlighted a key difference between the crime of larceny (Grand Larceny or Petit Larceny) and that of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property. While larceny occurs when and where a piece of property is stolen, Criminal Possession of Stolen Property occurs when and where the property is possessed. Because of the inherent difference in these crimes, the term “owner” was not intended to mean a singular owner in both instances. Rather, because nothing in the language of Penal Law 165.45 “indicate[d] that the legislature intended differently. . .the word ‘owner’, as used in that section, must be construed to include ‘owners’.”
Based upon this, the Court explained that NY PL 165.45 simply requires proof that a defendant possessed stolen property with knowledge that the property was stolen. The character of the offense is unaffected by whether the property belongs to a single owner or multiple owners. Therefore, the total value of stolen property belonging to multiple owners could be used to support a single charge and the defendant’s motion was dismissed.
Saland Law is a New York criminal defense firm representing those investigated and arrested for white collar and theft crimes throughout the New York City region. The two founding partners at Saland Law PC served as prosecutors in Manhattan prior to starting the defense firm.