What is receiving stolen property?

Receiving stolen property is a crime that occurs when someone acquires goods with the knowledge that they have been stolen or unlawfully taken. All U.S. states have laws regarding the receipt of stolen property, and it can also be a federal crime if the items are involved in interstate commerce, generally, if they moved from one state to another, and have a value over $5,000.

Receiving Stolen Property Elements

On the state level, the crime typically consists of four elements: (1) stolen property (2) is received (3) by someone who knows it is stolen and (4) the receiver intends to deprive the true owner of the property. In most cases, receiving stolen property means that the accused takes physical possession of it. Some state statutes only require the accused to exercise control over the property, which can mean paying for it or ordering the property to be moved from one place to another. The accused person does not have to pay for the property. The fact that the property is stolen is good enough.

The knowledge element is satisfied by actual knowledge, or, in most states, the belief that the property is stolen or illegally obtained. Some states use a reasonable person test. This test turns on whether or not a reasonable person would suspect that the goods were stolen. For example, if the price is “too good to be true” or if identifying marks (like serial numbers) are missing, that may be enough. In a minority of states, an accused can be convicted even if he did not know that the goods were stolen. 

Finally, the state must also prove that the accused intended to deprive the owner of his property. This element is met if the accused planned on selling the goods, giving them to anyone other than the owner, or if the accused intended on demanding a reward to return it to the owner. If the accused obtained the goods to return them to their owner or to the police, then he has a defense for this element.

Is Receiving Stolen Property a Felony or Misdemeanor?

Receipt of stolen property is often either a misdemeanor or a lower-level felony, with sentences ranging from a fine or suspended sentence up to ten years and a fine. Some states base sentences on how much the property is worth, with increased sentences for higher monetary values. Many courts may also award restitution to the victim in the amount of the merchandise plus additional punitive damages. 

Some states have a separate but similar charge called possessing stolen property or possession of stolen property.  The distinguishing factor here is when the accused learned the goods were stolen. If he knew at the time he acquired the property, then it is receipt of stolen property. It is possession of stolen property if he only learned the property was stolen after he obtained it.

In many states, the victim also has the option of bringing a civil action for conversion against the person who received the property. If the victim is successful in making this claim, he or she may demand either that the property be returned or that the defendant pay him the property’s full value at the time of its conversion. Some states may allow for the victim to tack on additional penalties. For example, California law allows for civil penalties of up to three times the amount of the victim’s loss in addition to court costs and attorney’s fees.   

Getting Help

If you have been charged with a stolen property crime or you are the victim, you should speak with an attorney. An attorney can review your options with you and plan a course of action to resolve your criminal or civil case.