Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wednesday's Weird But True Legal Cases - Vol XXXVI

Tonight's weird (but true) post was inspired by the recent conviction of OJ Simpson in relation to his use of force to "reclaim his property."

Under New York's Penal Law §155.15(1), a person who is accused of larceny can assert as a defense that the property was taken "under a claim of right made in good faith." In People v. Reid, 69 N.Y.2d 469, 515 N.Y.S.2d 750 (1987) New York's highest court examined whether the defense could be used in a robbery situation (defined as "when in the course of committing a larceny, he uses or threatens the immediate use of physical force").

In Reid, the court examined two fact patterns (the appeal involved two cases with similar facts which raised similar issues of law). In one of the cases, the defendant had taken money at gunpoint which he claimed was owed to him by the victim. In the other matter, the criminal defendant also took forcibly took cash (although without the threat of a gun) from the victim who he claimed owed him money.

In determining whether the defense was available, the court noted the logic used by other states, explaining that:

Defendants' general contention is not without support. Several jurisdictions have held that one who acts under a claim of right lacks the intent to steal and should not be convicted of robbery. That logic is tenable when a person seeks to recover a specific chattel: it is less so when asserted under the circumstances presented in these two cases: in Reid to recover the proceeds of crime, and in Riddles, to recover cash to satisfy a debt.
Ultimately, the court in Reid determined that the claim of right defense was not available when money was taken by force. The court did leave the door open to the use of the defense in cases involving specific items, stating:

We need not decide the quite different question of whether an individual who uses force to recover a specific chattel which he owns may be convicted of robbery. It should be noted, however, that because taking property “from an owner thereof” is an element of robbery, a person who recovers property which is his own (as compared to the fungible cash taken to satisfy a claimed debt in the cases before us) may not be guilty of robbery.
The question of the taking of a specific object by force came up in a slightly different context on the bar mitzvah of Reid in the case of People v. Brown, 185 Misc.d 326, 711 N.Y.S.2d 707 (Crim. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2000). In Brown, the defendant was accused of unauthorized use of a vehicle in the third degree. As noted by the court, unauthorized use:

[I]s in essence a kind of larceny statute specially adapted for car theft. The Unauthorized Use statute applies where a defendant takes a car for a "joyride"--that is, where the defendant takes or uses a car, however briefly, knowing that he does not have the consent of the car's owner. Unauthorized Use differs from classical larceny chiefly in that the crime of Unauthorized Use can be committed even where defendant does not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car; it is sufficient that defendant use the car for only a short period.
The facts in Brown were certainly closer to the fact pattern which the court hypothesized in Reid. In Brown the criminal defendant had paid $6,000 as a down payment on a car and then made subsequent monthly payments. He had the car registered in his girlfriend's name and they shared the use of the vehicle. At some point later the relationship between the two became strained and he was denied access to the car. Believing that he still had a right to the vehicle, he jumped in the car and drove it in a light pole as "if I can't have it, no one can" protest. He was then charged with the unauthorized use based on the girlfriend's assertion that Brown had bought the car for her for a present and that his use was without permission.

In determining that Brown was not guilty of unauthorized use, the court explained:

[I]t is undisputed that defendant Brown truly believed he had a right to use the car on the day in question. Moreover, as previously noted, there was at the very least a colorable, good faith basis for that belief because defendant paid for the car and because, for many months, Ms. Lindo had permitted defendant to use the car whenever he wanted. It is admittedly true that legal title to the car was held by Ms. Lindo and her father, and that Ms. Lindo had a very different understanding of the agreement she and defendant had struck concerning the car's use. Nevertheless defendant did believe in good faith that he was entitled to use the car on the day in question. Accordingly, he is not guilty of Attempted Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle. Any other verdict would elevate to the level of a crime what was in truth a petty civil dispute between Mr. Brown and Ms. Lindo over the precise terms of their vague and informal agreement to share the use of the car.

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