To be liable for theft in Pennsylvania, defendants have to intend to keep the property they allegedly took. This creates an important opportunity for a criminal defense lawyer to raise some strong legal defenses to a criminal charge of theft.
Theft Requires an Intent to Permanently Deprive the Owner
In Pennsylvania, the crime of theft forbids:
- Intentionally taking someone else's property without their permission, and
- Intending to keep that property, forever.
That second part opens up a can of worms for prosecutors and law enforcement. They have the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you wanted to keep the property forever when you allegedly took it.
Timing of the Intent is Important
A crucial aspect of the intent to keep the property is that it was present at the time of the alleged theft. If someone intended to steal a cell phone and intended to keep it, forever, at the moment they took it, then it is a theft. It doesn't matter if the defendant later decided to give the cell phone back to the victim – the intent to keep it was there at the time of the theft, and that's all that matters.
This prevents people from stealing something and then deciding to return it only if they get caught.
How to Show a Lack of Intent to Keep the Property
While it is ultimately up to the prosecutor to show that you intended to keep the property at the time it was taken, actively presenting evidence that indicates a lack of that intent can prevent them from persuading a jury on this point.
Legitimately Returning the Property
Returning the property before getting arrested can be strong evidence that you did not intend to keep it, forever. Doing so before facing prosecution can indicate that you did legitimately did intend to bring it back, and were not just doing so in order to avoid arrest.
Not Using the Property and Keeping it Safe
Not using the property or keeping it with a third party can also indicate a lack of intent to keep it. Keeping money in escrow or a separate bank account and not touching it can be used to prove that you did not steal it; you were only keeping it safe or had been entrusted to keep it by the alleged victim.
It Was a Loan or Was Borrowed
Another defense that can be raised to an accusation of theft is that the property was loaned or that you merely borrowed it. This can take documentary evidence like an email or even a text message as proof that there was an agreement for you to take the property and then return it.
This can also combat the first element of the crime of theft: You did not commit theft because the property was given to you with the owner's permission.
Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Joseph D. Lento
Joseph D. Lento legally represents criminal defendants in Philadelphia. Contact him online or call his law office at (215) 535-5353.