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What Is Receiving Stolen Property (PC 496)?

Receiving stolen property happens when someone purchases or obtains possession of an item that was acquired by the seller or “giver” by theft (i.e. burglary, embezzlement, shoplifting, robbery), fraud or any other unlawful means.  Our office has seen this charge arise from purchases allegedly from pawn shops, consignment stores, garage sales and swap meets.
About This Article Briefly:  Receiving stolen property can mean buying something at a very low price or being given something that one knows or should know was acquired by theft.  The crime is a wobbler, meaning it can be a felony (with punishment up to three years in state prison) or a misdemeanor.  Certain sentencing enhancements can apply based on the property received.
The client who receives the property, knowing at the time that the property was stolen and intending to aid the theft, is guilty of violating Penal Code § 496.  This can be surprisingly innocuous, i.e. purchasing jewelry at a low price, buying something when the seller accepts only cash, when the serial numbers on an item is scratched off, or allowing a friend to store his new skis in your garage.

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There are certain items that seem to repeatedly involve Penal Code § 496.  These are used cars, certain construction equipment, music equipment, boats, trailers, tires, jewelry and guns.

The defenses to this crime begin with the simple position that you did not know the property was stolen.  Likewise, if you believed you had a right to the property, i.e. through a bona-fide trade for fair value, this may be a defense.  

The key to this defense is how reasonable your good faith belief is under the circumstances, i.e. the seller’s criminal record, your criminal record, your age, your education, your employment (or profession), the popularity of the item, the ease with which the item can be resold, where you acquired the item and if anything else was acquired at the same time as a legal transaction.  It is also important how the client responded to law enforcement and where the item was located, i.e. whether it was hidden or displayed for all to admire.

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A variation on this defense is that the client did not know the stolen item was in one’s car, home or office.  This defense of course is viable only when the circumstances support the claim, i.e. the stolen gun was located jammed under a car seat after a friend borrowed the car for several days.  Defendant’s prior criminal history is often relevant in this regard.  The size of the item is also relevant, as is who previously owned the item.

Receiving stolen property is a “wobbler,” meaning it may be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor.  The decision of how to charge the crime depends upon the client’s prior record, the circumstances of the case, the client’s age and the client’s education and employment history.

If convicted of this offense as a misdemeanor, one faces a maximum of one year in county jail.  If the case is charged as a felony, the maximum prison time the client faces is three years.  If the defendant has no prior criminal record, probation, either summary (informal) or formal, is always a possibility, although the client may have to perform community service of some form as a condition of probation.

When the stolen item is a gun, car, boat, trailer or special construction equipment, there are enhanced fines of up to $1,000 if the charges are a misdemeanor and $10,000 if the charges are a felony.  There is no additional jail or prison time, however.

For more information about theft offenses, click on the following articles:
  1. Restitution Order Can Apply to One Who Receives Stolen Property, but Does Not Participate in Burglary
  2. What Is Commercial Burglary (Penal Code § 459) and What Are the Defenses?
  3. Conviction for Accessory to Shoplifting and Burglary Has Lesson for Those Defending Such Charges
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