The “Owner” of Property for the Purpose of Theft Crimes in New York

In New York, in order to be charged and convicted of a theft-related crime, it generally must be alleged that the defendant stole the property from an “owner” of that property. In other words, you can’t steal property from someone who doesn’t own that property, and you can’t steal property that rightfully belongs to you. This makes all the sense in the world, and doesn’t seem like it could ever lead to any ambiguity. However, it often does, particularly in the context of family and other close personal relationships.

In People v. Favors, 2017 NY Slip Op 07632 (3d Dept. 2017), the appellate court recently had to grapple with the issue of who was the “owner” of a cell phone that was taken by the person who purchased the phone and paid the phone bill from the person who it had been given to to use day-to-day. The Court held that “ownership is not limited to the title owner of the property. Rather, it is enough that [the victim] have a right to possession of the property superior to that of the thief.” What this means is that just because one person purchased an item and gave it to another person as a gift, does not give the purchaser the right to go take it back over the receiver’s objection. That will be considered a theft in New York. Importantly, specifically with regard to cell phones, just because the purchaser is also paying the phone bill and the phone plan is in the purchaser’s name, does not necessarily give the purchaser a right to that phone that is greater than the receiver. Just the opposite, the person who received the cell phone as a gift will be considered the “owner” of the phone even if the person who gave them the phone pays the phone bill and has the phone plan in his or her name.

It is easy to imagine a sensible, intelligent person coming the exactly the opposite conclusion in their day-to-day life. Not knowing that this is how the courts in New York will view a situation like this can lead to a significant misunderstanding that can lead to drastic, unexpected consequences. Thinking that you are going into an ex-girlfriend’s home to retrieve your cell phone, and turning around to find that you are facing felony Burglary charges can be quite a shock. Having an criminal attorney who not only understands the law surrounding this issue, but also understands the real-world, practical circumstances that many people in this kind of situation face is critical.

This blog entry is not an attempt to substitute for an examination of your particular case by your own criminal defense lawyer who will determine what is best for your case. Instead, this entry can give you the foundation to better understand property crimes. To better understand these crimes, possible defenses, and how you can best protect yourself, consult with your criminal lawyer.

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