As a child, everyone learns that borrowing without asking and borrowing without returning an item are both considered stealing the item from the owner. But from a legal perspective, things aren’t so clear cut. That’s because California’s theft laws require someone to intend to either permanently take an item or at least take it long enough that the owner would be deprived of his or her property rights. For this very reason, the state has actually created specific laws covering taking certain items, such as bicycles and vehicles, without the permission of the owner. Of course, none of this means you should just go take something from someone else without permission with the hopes that you won’t be convicted.
How California’s Theft Laws Are Written
- That the suspect intentionally took something that did not belong to them
- That the defendant did not have the owner’s permission to do so
- That the alleged thief planned to either keep the item forever or long enough that the owner would be denied of his or her property rights.
While these three points may seem straight forward enough, they’re not always as easy to prove as you may imagine. As an example, image a woman was trying on her friend’s jewelry and absent-mindedly forgot she was still wearing a pair of earrings when the left the house. While she would legally be required return them or she could be consider to be intentionally keeping them, the actual act of taking them from her friend’s home wouldn’t be a crime because it was a simple mistake. Similarly, if she borrowed the earrings and didn’t return them because she lost them, it wouldn’t be theft because she didn’t borrow them with the intention of not returning them.
In another example, imagine man’s roommate told him that he could borrow a power drill, but the man didn’t end up needing to borrow it for a few months. It’s entirely possible that the roommate might not remember offering to let the man borrow his drill and while the man probably should have asked again to refresh his roommate’s mind, if he borrowed the drill without asking a second time, this wouldn’t be a crime.
The part about denying the owner of their property rights is perhaps the most challenging part for the prosecution to prove in cases where the defendant claims they borrowed an item. In fact, if a woman took a pair of hedge clippers from the back of her neighbor’s truck without asking, she couldn’t be accused of theft as long as she gave the clippers back before the owner was denied of his property rights.
So When is Borrowing Theft?
With this in mind, you might think you can just go take whatever you want and claim you “borrowed” it. But if you actually take something without intending to return it, even if you ask to borrow it first, this is theft because you had the intent to take it without returning it to the rightful owner. Granted this can be difficult to prove, but if you’re holding on to an item for an inordinate amount of time despite having many opportunities to return it to the actual owner, this could be evidence that you never meant to give it back.
Similarly, while borrowing something without permission isn’t always a crime, it can be if you deny the owner of his property rights. How long something must be gone in order to deny someone of their property rights is a matter of debate. If the woman in the previous example used the hedge clippers for about an hour, it would probably not be considered denying the owner property rights, unless he was in the middle of trimming his hedges. On the other hand, if the woman held on to the clippers for a week before the man noticed her using them and he called the cops, it would be a matter of debate as to whether she intended to keep the clippers forever or if the owner’s property rights were violated over that week.
Other Charges Are Possible
Naturally, you can’t just take whatever you want, even on a temporary basis either. If you enter someone’s home illegally, you can be accused of burglary and while burglary technically requires you to have the intention of committing a theft, it’s a lot harder to successfully argue that you just walked into someone’s residence without permission just to “borrow” something, also without permission.
Taking a vehicle without consent either with the intent of permanently or temporarily depriving the owner of possession has the same penalties of grand theft auto except the prosecution doesn’t have to prove the defendant stole the vehicle or intended to keep it. Also, passengers can be charged with the same crime if they assisted in any way. Typically, what we think of as car theft cases are charged this way and as a felony. Taking a bicycle without permission is covered by a similar law, punishable by up to 3 months in jail and $400 in fines.
If you have been accused of a crime after borrowing someone’s property, please call Peter Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case.
Image by Zhivko