In California, the severity of some crimes, particularly charges for theft and vandalism, are based on the value of property affected by the criminal act. In fact, if a theft involves property valued at over $950 it may be filed as a felony or misdemeanor, or if the property damage in a vandalism case is determined to be more than $400 worth, the charges will be a felony. If the property in these cases is valued at less than these amounts, then the charges will be a misdemeanor.
While the issue is generally fairly simple in shoplifting cases since the stolen merchandise will almost always have a specific price that can easily be verified, the issue isn’t so simple when it comes to property an individual has owned for years. In fact, the estimated value could vary dramatically depending on whether you talk to the defense attorney, the prosecution or the property owner.
Fair Market Value of Stolen Property
California state law requires the courts to determine the property taken in a theft case based on its reasonable and fair market value. Again, if you steal a ring from a jeweler, the price the ring was being sold for will obviously be the fair market value.
But when someone steals another person’s wedding ring, that fair market value will be a lot harder to determine. If the property owner has a recent receipt, this will usually resolve the issue the same way it would if the item was stolen from a store. On the other hand, if the receipt was from 50 years ago, the fair market value could be based on the replacement value or on the original value adjusted for inflation. In cases where these two values are quite different, the prosecution might push for one value where the defense pushes for another.
The person who the ring belongs to will almost always believe it is worth more than the prosecutor claims and far, far more than the defense attorney says and it is up to the court to determine the value based on the information provided by all interested parties.
Using the Replacement Value of an Item
One of the most common methods of determining a reasonable and fair market value is to look at the replacement value. This is logical, as the owner will generally want to buy a new item to replace that one which was stolen, damaged or destroyed.
But even using the replacement value for such an item can be difficult, especially if the stolen item was never recovered. Using the stolen wedding ring example from above, it’s easy to imagine the owner may claim it had a much larger diamond than it actually had. In these cases, the defense lawyer may need to have a jeweler testify as an expert witness, estimating the size of the diamond based on a photograph of the ring. To make matters worse, items like rings can have drastically varying fair market values even if all parties agree on the size and quality of the materials.
The internet has added an extra layer of complication to these types of valuations as just because someone is attempting to sell a product for $1,000 on eBay or as a third-party Amazon seller doesn’t mean anyone would actually pay this amount. Instead, it is important to look at the price of completed sales and keep in mind that one desperate buyer may be willing to pay far more than fair market value, so even one sale doesn’t definitively prove a product’s value. This is when an expert in a specific field can come in handy.
Valuing Rare or One-of-a-Kind Items
In some cases, coming up with a replacement value is nearly impossible. If a collectible or artwork is rare or even one-of-a-kind, you probably won’t be able to just look it up on eBay’s completed listings section. Instead, you’ll probably need to hire an expert to make an estimate based on their experience and what they have seen similar items go for in auction. Sometimes proving the value of property can be particularly challenging if it is something that could be considered “priceless.”
You might be familiar with these experts from shows like Antiques Roadshow. But what you don’t see on antiques road show is that experts often disagree with one another. This is why the defense and prosecution might even bring in their own experts to testify on the value of items in a theft case involving a particularly valuable item that could be subject to enhancements based on the value of the item.
Determining the Value of Property Damage
The methods above work in cases where property was stolen or destroyed, but property damage can be a little different as it only needs to be repaired rather than replaced. The same way three different rings made from the same quality and quantity of materials can be have three wildly different prices, three estimates to repair damage could be wildly different.
For this reason, it can often be beneficial to have your attorney attempt to work with the victim to repair the damage. In some cases, if you repair the damage, the victim may even agree to drop the charges. Even if that does not happen in your case, you may be able to help minimize the cost to repair the property, helping to keep the value under $400 in many cases, so you will only face misdemeanor charges.
Even if the value of vandalism damage is over $400, prosecutors often charge thefts under $1,000 as misdemeanors. Even felony vandalism cases where the damage is valued at under $1,000 sometimes also result in the judges reducing the charges to misdemeanors if restitution is made.
If you have been accused of theft or vandalism, your lawyer can make a big difference in how the charges are filed, particularly if he can help minimize the estimated value of items in the case. If you have been accused of any crime involving the theft, destruction or damage of someone else’s property, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.
Image by kschneider2991