In the state of Georgia, you do not have to be a thief to be convicted of thievery. Even if you are proven to have not stolen an item, you can still be charged and punished for possessing the item the same as if you were the thief. Under the Theft by Receiving Stolen Property statute, if you have any interaction at all with a stolen item, you might as well have just stolen it yourself- unless you have no knowledge it was stolen. This is because all theft charges in Georgia share the same punishments.
In full, O.C.G.A. § 16-8-7 reads: “A person commits the offense of theft by receiving stolen property when they receive, dispose of, or retain stolen property which they know or should know was stolen unless the property is received, disposed of, or retained with intent to restore it to the owner. It shall not be necessary to show a conviction of the original thief.”
The important word here is “knowledge”. In 1972, Hudgins v. State ruled that “Knowledge may be shown by circumstances which would excite suspicion in the mind of an ordinarily prudent man.” In other words, to convict you of Theft by Receiving, the state has to convince a jury that there were enough red flags that they themselves would suspect the goods were stolen if they were put in the same situation. They may also highlight or spin any behaviors you have exhibited (i.e. hiding the goods) as circumstantial evidence to paint a picture to the jury that you knew goods were stolen- because of this, it is extremely important to remain calm and avoid looking suspicious while interacting with law enforcement.
Wells v. State – Acquitted
The Wells case was fairly simple, and a good example of the importance of having a defense attorney who is familiar with theft cases. Jerome Wells was charged with Possession of a Firearm by Convicted Felon and Theft by Receiving Stolen Property. Because the property was a handgun, this was escalated to a felony charge.
Wells and his brother attempted to pawn a handgun at a pawnshop, who called the police and requested to have the serial number checked. They discovered that the gun had been reported stolen 4 years earlier. The original owner of the gun testified that it had been stolen from his truck, but he did not know who stole it. The brothers originally stated that they were given the handgun by their grandfather, but later retracted that statement but said they did not know it was stolen.
Although none of that looks good, Wells’s defense attorney made the case that a conviction absolutely requires knowledge, and that there was no evidence that Wells was aware that the firearm was stolen. Because of this, Wells was cleared of his Theft by Receiving charge.
Hudgins v. State – Convicted
In 1972, Thurman Hudgins received 190 separate tools at his automobile repair shop with an estimated value of $810. Two brothers, who worked as a painter and a mill worker and whom Hudgins had known for years, had stolen the tools from a maintenance shop and sold them to Hudgins for $40, stating that they desperately needed grocery money. The tools were recovered from various automobiles on Hudgins’s properties during consensual searches. Hudgins denied knowing that the goods were stolen, and stated that he thought he had “bought a bargain”. Because of circumstantial evidence shown by the prosecution, he was determined to have had knowledge of their stolen nature and was convicted of Theft by Receiving.
The circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution was that:
- The tools were brought to him by individuals he knew to work in professions that would not usually have access to these tools (a painter and a mill worker).
- He knew that the value of the tools ($810) was grossly more than he paid ($40), and even stated that he knew he “bought a bargain”. *Being sold goods for a shockingly low price is one of the most common arguments that prosecutors will use to show knowledge.
- When first asked if he possessed the tools, Hudgins denied possession until the brothers stated in his presence that they had given Hudgins the tools.
- Some tools were found locked in the trunk of an old car, which looked suspicious.
The punishments for theft are governed by O.C.G.A. § 16-8-6. This statute rules that violations of theft statutes are determined to be Felonies or misdemeanors primarily by whether the value of stolen goods surpasses a given dollar amount or not. Contrary to the common belief that the threshold is $500, the dollar value at which a theft crime becomes a felony is almost universally $1,500. While most of the exceptions to this are obscure, there is one notable exception- theft of a firearm or explosive is specifically codified as a felony, regardless of the market value of the firearm.
Once the $1,500 threshold is surpassed, however, the following punishment requirements apply:
(A) If the property which was the subject of the theft exceeded $24,999.99 in value, by imprisonment for 2-20 years;
(B) If the property which was the subject of the theft was $5,000.00-$25,000.00 in value, by imprisonment for 1-10 years and, in the discretion of the trial judge, as for a misdemeanor;
(C) If the property which was the subject of the theft was $1,500.01-$5,000.00 in value, by imprisonment for 1-5 years and, in the discretion of the trial judge, as for a misdemeanor; and
(D) If the defendant has 2 prior convictions for a violation of Code Sections O.C.G.A § 16-8-2 through O.C.G.A. § 16-8-9 (basically any theft crime), upon a 3rd or subsequent conviction, such defendant shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment for 1-5 years and, in the discretion of the trial judge, as for a misdemeanor;
There are two things to note here. First, the 3rd theft of any kind becomes a misdemeanor. That means if you already had 2 minor misdemeanor theft convictions and are unknowingly given a stolen gift by a friend, it is now a felony crime without a criminal defense attorney capable of proving you did not know it was stolen. The second thing to note is the explicit language giving the judge the option to punish these crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
Although not many criminal defense attorneys utilize it, there is a somewhat hidden statute (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-5) that allows a Georgia judge to punish any felony as a misdemeanor, so long as the maximum sentence is under 10 years. These are commonly known as Wobbler offenses. What makes the language of the Penalties for Theft statute unique, however, is that this option is specifically re-stated (except for theft of items valued over $25k). At Bixon Law, we have a proven track record of leveraging this language to get serious theft cases reduced to misdemeanors.
Lack of Intent. In Georgia, theft crimes are crimes of intent, meaning that you can only be convicted of the crimeif you explicitly and deliberately committed the act. A criminal defense attorney can make the case that you did not intend to conduct any illegal activity.
I Didn’t Know it was Stolen. There is room to make the case that you purchased an item without awareness that it was stolen. This hinges on you being able to prove that a reasonable person would not have known or suspected that the property was stolen. Because “what a reasonable person would know” is subjective, this can be a difficult approach.
Inflated Value by the Court. Because the severity of the punishment imposed on you hinges on the value that the court assigns to the item in question, a powerful tool is to challenge the stated value. For example, if the state says that a diamond ring found on the street was worth $1,500, we may be able to find a jewelry appraiser who would testify that certain blemishes on the ring bring its market value down to a dollar value within the misdemeanor level.
CONTACT BIXON LAW TODAY
If you have been charged with a theft crime, give Bixon Law a call today to speak to one of our experienced Georgia criminal defense lawyers. We will vigorously defend your legal rights and advocate on your behalf to have your case dismissed or the charges against you reduced. As experienced trial attorneys, we are also not afraid to take your case to trial if necessary. We represent clients in Atlanta and throughout the state of Georgia. We are lawyers who are committed to helping people in difficult situations and we invite you to call us at (404) 551-5684 for a free consultation today.