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When a Lie Leads to a Theft Conviction: Establishing Knowledge of Stolen Property at a NY PL 155.30 & NY PL 165.40 Trial

In a previous post, we explained that under New York’s larceny laws, offenses relating to Criminal Possession of Stolen Property require that a prosecutor introduce evidence showing a defendant “knowingly possessed” the stolen property in question. We explained that, given the language of the statute, courts have held that a defendant cannot be convicted for merely possessing stolen property without evidence showing that he or she knew the property was stolen.

To illustrate this point, we examined a case called People v. Nowakowski. In this case, the defendant explained that he had purchased the property in question, but the prosecution was unable to provide any evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the defendant knew the property was stolen. Because the prosecution provided no evidence that the defendant knew the property was stolen, the jury could not properly be asked to consider whether he knew it was stolen.

As your New York criminal lawyer would likely tell you, your case can change drastically if you can explain how you came into possession of the stolen property whether it be for violating New York Penal Law 165.40 or a more serious felony offense. While you, as the accused, are never required or can be compelled to share your story, a valid explanation may be valuable (similarly, a bogus or ridiculous claim can be devastating). Although seemingly insignificant, one critical factor in proving Nowakowski’s innocence was his irrefutable explanation regarding how he came to possess the property in question; prosecutors were never able to show that the defendant’s story was false. If Nowakowski had not explained that he purchased the property, or his explanation was shown to be false, the evidence against him could very well have been sufficient to convict him of the crime for which he was charged. Based upon similar facts, the Court reached this very conclusion in People v. Mangual.

In Mangual, the defendant was charged with Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (NY PL 155.30), a felony. He was also charged with Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Fifth Degree (NY PL165.40), a misdemeanor. Under New York Penal Law 155.30, a person is guilty of Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree when he or she wrongfully takes another person’s property and the property’s value is greater than $1000 (there are also property specific subsections). Under New York Penal Law 165.40, a person is guilty of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Fifth Degree when he or she knowingly possesses stolen property for his or her own benefit irrespective of its value. If convicted, these charges can carry a significant prison or jail sentence.

At Mangual’s trial, prosecutors introduced eyewitness testimony that the defendant had been seen driving up and removing two unattended bags from a sidewalk. The eyewitness explained that he had also observed nametags on the bags that the defendant removed. When he read the names on the tags, they belonged to someone the eyewitness knew – someone who was not the defendant. The eyewitness recorded the license plate of the vehicle and contacted the person whose name he had seen on the property.

The owner of the bags confirmed that she had not given permission for anyone to take them, and discovered shortly thereafter that her apartment had been burglarized. The witness provided the defendant’s license plate to police; a subsequent search of the defendant’s vehicle yielded many of the items that had been taken from the apartment. In a statement made to officers, the defendant explained that he had taken the bags from the street corner, but claimed he had only left his apartment “late in the afternoon,” and denied any involvement in the burglary.

Testifying on his own behalf, the defendant offered a different version of how he had obtained the property. He explained that he had actually left his apartment at 1:00 pm on the day in question, at which time he had met a stranger claiming he “needed money for travel.” The stranger told the defendant that his bags were sitting on the street corner, and asked if the defendant could pick them up. After picking up the bags, the defendant claimed that the stranger offered to sell him the property inside in exchange for money the stranger required.

Despite the defendant’s explanation at trial that he was unaware the merchandise was stolen, he was convicted of the offenses of Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (NY PL 155.30) and Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Fifth Degree (NY PL 165.40). Following his conviction, Mangual appealed, alleging prosecutors did not prove that he “knowingly possessed” the stolen property. The Court rejected this argument, explaining that, “While some charges [against the defendant] are based upon circumstantial evidence, ‘unexplained or falsely explained possession of recently stolen property is sufficient to establish a prima facie case to enable a jury to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.'”

Although this ruling may seem confusing in light of Nowakowski, the factual circumstances here warrant a much different finding. In Nowakowski, the defendant provided an explanation for how he came to possess the property in question. Prosecutors could not show that the defendant’s explanation was false. Consequently, the only way to make their case against him was to prove that he actually knew the property was stolen. They submitted no evidence in support of assertion

In this case, the defendant explained in his initial statement to police how he came to possess the stolen property. That statement provided circumstantial evidence which the jury used to conclude he knew the property was stolen. When the defendant offered a second contradictory explanation at trial, the jury was left to consider whether the defendant’s new testimony was credible. Because they determined it was not, the prosecution was able to establish a prima facie case against the defendant. Together, this evidence was sufficient for the jury to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for the offense.

Obviously Nowakowski and Mangual reached two different conclusions, but the thought process of the judges was very much the same. While there is no need to every speak to the police or testify at trial, should your story not “add up,” it may be used to establish your criminal knowledge that what you possessed was stolen property. Among many things you can take from these cases, speaking to a criminal attorney before doing so with any arm of law enforcement is something you should always consider.

To educate yourself about any of these crimes of Grand Larceny or Criminal Possession of Stolen Property, follow the links above or go directly to NewYorkTheftAndLarcenyLawyers.Com.

Established in 2008 by two former Manhattan prosecutors who served over a dozen years collectively Assistant District Attorneys, Saland Law PC’s New York criminal defense attorneys represent individuals investigated and arrested for white collar and theft crimes throughout New York City and the surrounding area.

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