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What defenses do you have to theft charges?

If you've been charged with theft and the facts of the case seem to support the allegations, do you still have any possible defenses?

In any criminal case, you're only guilty of what the prosecution can prove. That's an important thing to remember -- it can keep you from pleading guilty when you shouldn't.

In order to prove that you're guilty of theft, the prosecution has to show that:

  • You intentionally took the item
  • You intended to permanently deprive the owner of that item

As you can see, "intent" is an important part of the prosecution's case -- which is why most defenses to theft charges attack that issue. Some common defenses include:

You took the item by accident

You can't accidentally be guilty of theft -- there's no intention behind an accidental act! For example, walking out of the store while forgetting to pay for something that's on the bottom of a shopping cart after a big shopping trip is a common accident. Another common example occurs when a toddler grabs an item from a shelf when a parent isn't looking. Children of a certain age don't understand the concept of theft -- so they can't be held responsible either.

You borrowed the item

If you only borrowed an item, you never intended to keep it from the owner forever. For example, if you borrowed a neighbor's lawnmower out of his or her garage when he or she wasn't home because you thought he or she wouldn't mind, that's not actually theft.

You thought the item was yours

This sometimes happens when there's a mix-up. For example, if you and your friend go out to dinner and you all leave without paying, it isn't a case of "dine and dash" if you honestly believed your friend paid the tab. Similarly, if you paid someone for a car and then find out that he or she wasn't the proper owner, you're another victim -- not guilty of theft.

Don't plead guilty without considering the possible defenses to theft charges. A conviction can make it very hard to convince people you're of good moral character. That could affect your ability to find housing, get a job or even maintain relationships with others.

Source: FindLaw, "Theft Defenses," accessed April 18, 2018

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