Washington Appeals Court Reverses Possession of Stolen Property Conviction

To convict a defendant in a Washington criminal case, the state must prove every element of the crime, including any knowledge intent element.  In a recent unpublished case, a defendant challenged whether the state had sufficiently proven he had the requisite knowledge to support a first degree possession of stolen property conviction.

The sheriff’s office got a search warrant for the defendant’s vehicle and a deputy later stopped him.  They took the defendant into custody and his car was impounded.  On the lanyard with the vehicle key was a key to a storage unit.  Deputies obtained a warrant for that storage unit to search for stolen property.  They found a John Deere GPS device and antenna with a market value between $11,000 to $11,500.

The defendant was charged with possession of stolen property in the first degree and trafficking in stolen property in the first degree, but the state dropped the trafficking charge before trial.

One of the investigating officers testified the GPS device was found in a box near the door of the storage unit.  Officers determined it was stolen based on the serial number.  The antenna sold with the unit was also found in the storage unit.

The officer testified the box was addressed to the defendant and the shipping label indicated it contained plastic bottles.  The label also stated the package weighed four pounds, but the officer said it weighed about ten pounds with the GPS device in it.  The officer testified he did not investigate the return address on the shipping label.

A salesman testified the owner had purchased the GPS device for $11,395 plus tax and the antenna for $1,345 plus tax.  The owner testified he bought the GPS device and antenna and noticed they were missing from his tractor in mid-July 2021.  He notified the salesman the unit and antenna were stolen and asked about getting replacements.  He also mentioned the theft to other people in the community, but did not file a police report.  He did not know the defendant.

The detective testified about his familiarity with the local farming community and said he knew the defendant was not part of the farming community.

A corrections officer testified to authenticate recordings of calls the defendant made from jail discussing the storage unit and its contents.

At the end of the state’s evidence, the defendant moved to dismiss, but the court denied his motion.  He was found guilty and appealed.  On appeal, the defendant argued the evidence was insufficient.

To convict a defendant of first degree possessing stolen property, the state must show he possessed stolen property exceeding $5,000 in value. RCW 9A.56.150(1).   To meet the definition of “possessing stolen property,” the defendant must “knowingly. . . receive, retain, possess, conceal or dispose of stolen property knowing that it has been stolen. . .” RCW 9A.56.140(1). A person knows or acts knowingly if they are aware of a fact or has information that would cause a reasonable person to believe it exists.  The Washington Supreme Court has held that “knowing” conduct under a criminal statute is based on the defendant’s subjective knowledge.  The factfinder may infer knowledge if they conclude, based on the evidence, a reasonable person would have known the fact, but there still must be a finding of subjective knowledge.

The appeals court noted there was sufficient evidence the defendant was knowingly in possession of the stolen property based on the calls in which he said everything from the couch in the unit forward was his and the officer’s testimony of where the GPS unit was found. That evidence did not show, however, whether the state presented sufficient evidence he knew those things were stolen.

Although possession of property that was recently stolen may increase the likelihood a defendant knew it was stolen, it is alone insufficient to prove it.  Where there is corroborative evidence, the factfinder may infer guilty knowledge.  Courts have acknowledged the following may constitute corroborative evidence: flight, presence near the crime scene, use of a false name, property damage consistent with theft, hidden possession, or the defendant giving a false explanation for possessing the property.

The state suggesting the factfinder may draw an unfavorable inference from a defendant’s silence in failing to explain possession of the property would violate due process.  Additionally, courts have held instructing jurors they may make an inference of guilty knowledge based on a defendant’s failure to explain possession of the stolen property could improperly shift the burden of proof to the defendant.

The state argued at trial that the defendant was not a farmer and had no reason to have the expensive GPS device in his storage unit.  The state argued on appeal that the GPS device was hidden and the defendant had made “inconsistent and bizarre” statements about whether he owned the items in the storage unit in his phone calls.  The appeals court, however rejected this as corroborative evidence of inculpatory circumstances.  The appeals court pointed to the defense’s argument that such items might be profitable for resale by an eBay seller, which was a plausible reason for someone other than a farmer to have those items.  The appeals court concluded the defendant having the items in his storage unit despite not being a farmer was not an “inculpatory circumstance.”

The appeals court further concluded the device was not hidden in an inculpatory way when it was visible and located near the door.  Additionally, the defendant did not himself rent the storage unit.

The appeals court also noted the phone calls occurred after the unit had been searched and the state had not explained how his conversation regarding selling the property suggested he knew the GPS device was stolen.

The appeals court concluded there was not sufficient evidence supporting a finding that the defendant knew the items were stolen.  The appeals court reversed the conviction and remanded with instructions to the trial court to dismiss the charge with prejudice.

If you are facing criminal charges, a skilled Washington criminal defense attorney can fight for your rights.  Call (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC.

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