Can One Be Convicted of Grand Theft for Not Paying Rent?
A mere unlawful detainer action seems like hollow punishment for such an irresponsible or even defiant renter who may never intend to pay rent from the start.About This Article Briefly: Someone who fails to pay rent can be convicted of grand theft if the person committed identity theft to gain the right to rent the premises. Otherwise, simply not paying rent does not seem to be criminal in nature and would remain a civil (not criminal) breach of contact.
After trial on the unlawful detainer action, the landlord garnished $3,000 from the bank account of Leah Taylor. It was only then that Taylor realized that she had been a victim of identity theft. Taylor did get her $3,000 back, but her credit rating was damaged. Taylor then contacted the Long Beach Police Department to report Bell’s use of her identity and the damage to her credit. Taylor was obviously mad at Bell and considered such false impersonation criminal.
On appeal, the grand theft conviction received the most attention. Bell argued that grand theft did not really fit the crime, as she had no intention of permanently depriving the owner of the property. When the lease expired, her intention was to move out and return the property to the lessor.
The prosecution rebutted this permanent deprivation argument by noting that Bell indeed did intend to permanently deprive the lessor of the unpaid rent. The court of appeals agreed.
The dissent to the opinion characterized the holding as going too far. It said that an intent to permanently deprive an owner of a temporary interest in property is not an intent to permanently deprive the owner of all possession.
The dissent analogized the majority opinion to convicting someone of grand theft for joyriding, which is well understood as not grand theft. It pointed out that joyriding was separately criminalized precisely because joyriders fail to satisfy the intent to permanently deprive requirement. It cautioned that the court should not embark onto a slippery slope wherein every temporary deprivation of property is, in a sense, a permanent deprivation, no matter how short.
As this opinion seems to establish new grounds for defining grand theft, it will be interesting to note how further cases build upon the Bell opinion or criticize it.
For more information about identity theft and theft in general click on the following articles:
For summaries of some of the theft and robbery cases we have handled, view our Select Theft / Robbery Case Results.
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