Receiving stolen property is a criminal offense so long as you knew the property in your possession was stolen or you had reason to know of its origin. Receiving stolen property, though, is more than mere possession. The elements1 or what the District Attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to convict you under PC 496 are:
- You bought, sold, received2, concealed3, withheld from the owner, or helped someone in these acts, such property that had been stolen4
or extorted5 from someone and,
- When these acts were done, you had knowledge that the goods were stolen or obtained by extortion and,
- You knew6
the property was in your possession or presence7
As indicated, you can be charged under Penal Code 496 if you help someone hide stolen property. Many times, people will sell stolen items at very low prices and for cash only from their car or truck with the serial numbers or other identifying information removed so that it is obvious the property was stolen.
Prosecutors who have insufficient evidence to charge you with stealing property may charge you with possession instead.
You can be charged with receiving property if you enjoyed its benefits even if you did not steal it or did not buy it or borrow it or have it given to you. Riding in a stolen car that you knew was stolen can be enough if you failed to exit the car once you learned it was stolen and continued to derive some benefit from being in it.
You also may receive stolen property by deriving benefits from money that was stolen by another person so long as you knew it was stolen.
There are people who are in the business of buying or collecting the property of others, usually for resale. These may be vendors at swap meets, pawn shops, dealers of second hand metals or materials, or persons buying, selling or receiving electronic equipment or vehicles. PC 496 can hold these individuals criminally liable if they meet these criteria:
- These individuals acquired the property under circumstances where they should have made reasonable inquiries into whether the seller was the lawful owner or had the legal right to sell the property, and,
- The individual failed to make the inquiry or it was a cursory one8
If you are in the business of collecting goods or junk metals9 or even second-hand books10, then you must do your due diligence before buying or otherwise acquiring the property. If there are suspicious circumstances that the seller cannot reasonably explain, then obtaining the property can expose the vendor to criminal penalties.
For example, if a teenager is in possession of high quality jewelry or loose diamonds and says his uncle gave it to him to sell to you, then you have to contact the uncle and receive other proof that these items were legitimately owned by the uncle and that the teen had permission to sell it.
Also, you face multiple counts of receiving stolen property for each separate occasion that you receive stolen goods. However if you received multiple stolen items in one single occasion then it is considered one offense of receiving stolen property11.
Stolen property valued in excess of $950 can subject you to either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the individual facts and circumstances of the case and your criminal history.
|Fine||Up to $1000||Up to $10,000|
|Probation||Summary or informal probation||Formal Probation|
|Jail||Up to one year in county jail||6 months, 2 or 3 years in county jail|
The law also provides that the victim may sue you for damages along with costs and attorney’s fees.
Defenses to receiving stolen property usually concern a showing that the prosecution lacks sufficient proof in any of the elements of the offense, including:
Even if the goods you purchased lacked a serial number or the price was well below market value, this does not by itself constitute knowledge it was stolen. For instance, if you asked the seller where he obtained the goods or why it was so cheap and the explanation was plausible, then the trier-of-fact may determine that the prosecution did not sustain its burden of proof.
The DA must prove that you knew the property was not only stolen but that you knew it was in your car, house or on your person. If you live with roommates who had stolen property hidden in your house or garage or you borrowed a car that had stolen property in the trunk and you profess ignorance of it, then you lacked sufficient knowledge without more proof.
This defense is dependent on your intent when you received the stolen property. If you can show you intended to return the stolen property to the rightful owner or to the police when you gained possession of the property, then you lacked criminal intent12.
If you formed the intent later, meaning at the time you received the stolen property you intended to keep it but then had a change of heart, or you did intend to return it but then kept it, this defense will fail.
You would have to demonstrate what steps you promptly took to return the property or to alert the police. If you waited several days before doing anything, you might have a difficult time convincing the trier-of-fact of your innocent intent when you received the property.
Sometimes defendants will argue that they received the property while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Generally, intoxication or being under the influence is not a defense but if you could show other circumstances that were present at the time, then it might show that you lacked knowledge that the property was stolen. For instance, if you were at large party with alcohol and you had been drinking heavily when someone offered you a Rolex watch for $200 and you purchased it, the prosecution may have a difficult time showing that you had the requisite knowledge that the item was stolen or had the intent to receive stolen property13.
PC 496 is a “wobbler” offense. If your conviction was a misdemeanor, you qualify for an expungement of your record under Penal Code 1203.4. An expungement does not totally erase your record though it does deny to the general public access to your record if a criminal background check is performed. A landlord or private employer will not see any record of arrest or conviction if it has been expunged.
A misdemeanor conviction does not take away any of your civil rights but employers, landlords and some schools may still consider it in whether you get hired, promoted enrolled in school or obtain a lease to rent an apartment.
Felony convictions may also be expunged provided that you did not serve any time in state prison. PC 496 does not provide for any time in state prison. Accordingly, your conviction should qualify it for expungement regardless if you were convicted of a felony or misdemeanor and you also meet these other conditions:
- Completed all terms and conditions of your probation
- Have no criminal charges pending
- You have not committed any offenses since you completed probation
If your conviction was a felony under PC 496, you can petition the court to reduce it to a misdemeanor under PC 17(b)(3) before expunging it since it is a “wobbler.” This will allow your Second Amendment right to own or possess a firearm to be reinstated.
All documents regarding the expungement must be served on the DA and probation department at least 15 court days before the hearing to give them an opportunity to contest it. The DA or probation office will not challenge your petition unless you do not meet all the conditions listed herein.
Should you not be a US citizen, you face serious immigration consequences including deportation if you are convicted under PC 496 since it is considered a crime of moral turpitude and a deportable offense.
If you were convicted and left the US, you could be prevented from reentering. If you are already here, it could be an obstacle to getting a green card, becoming naturalized or otherwise gaining legal immigration status. You may be able to obtain relief with the efforts of an experienced immigration attorney who challenge removal proceedings if you qualify for deferred action, adjustment of status or under temporary protected status. You may also be eligible for asylum or protection under The United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Grand theft under PC 487 is either a felony or a misdemeanor. It is based on the value of the property taken, which must be more than $950. If less, it is petty theft and always charged as a misdemeanor. Theft is simply the obtaining of property from another person without that person’s permission and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.
You can only be convicted with either receiving stolen property under PC 496 or grand or petty theft and not both14. If you are convicted of a misdemeanor, it carries up to 6 months in jail and a fine of no more than $1000. If the goods taken were valued at $50 or less, you could face only an infraction.
Otherwise, as a felony, the penalty is 16 months, 2 or 3 years in jail and a fine up to $10,000.
Embezzlement is charged when a person who has been entrusted with maintaining funds or property of another takes that money or property for their own benefit without authority or permission. It is a “wobbler” offense and how you are charged depends on the value of the property or the money embezzled. If $950 or less, it is a misdemeanor. If over that amount, it is within the prosecutor’s discretion to charge a felony, which is 16 months, 2 or 3 years in jail.
Extortion is obtaining money from another by force or threat to gain their consent. You extort money for instance by threatening to expose another person’s infidelity to their spouse or to the public unless they pay you a certain sum of money. It is a felony and punishable by 2, 3 or 4 years in state prison and a fine up to $10,000.
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- Elements. Pen. Code, § 496(a); People v. Land (1994) 30 Cal.App.4th 220,223 [35 Cal.Rptr.2d 544]. [↩]
- CALCRIM 1750 (2017)- “To receive property means to take possession and control of it. Mere/presence near or access to the property is not enough.] [Two or more people can possess the property at the same time.] [A person does not have to actually hold or touch something to possess it. It is enough if the person has [control over it] [or] [the right to control it], either personally or through another person.]” [↩]
- Concealment. Williams v. Superior Court (1978) 81 Cal.App.3d 330, 343–344 [146 Cal.Rptr. 311]. [↩]
- Stolen Property. People v. Kunkin (1973) 9 Cal.3d 245, 250 [107 Cal.Rptr.184, 507 P.2d 1392] [theft]; see, e.g., People v. Candiotto (1960) 183 Cal.App.2d 348, 349 [6 Cal.Rptr. 876] [burglary]; People v. Siegfried (1967) 249 Cal.App.2d 489, 493 [57 Cal.Rptr. 423] [robbery] [↩]
- Extortion Defined. Penal Code 518 (Extortion is the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right. [↩]
- Knowledge Element. People v. Reyes (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 975, 985 [61 Cal.Rptr.2d 39] [↩]
- Possession and Control. People v. Land (1994) 30 Cal.App.4th 220, 223–224 [35 Cal.Rptr.2d 544]; People v. Zyduck (1969) 270 Cal.App.2d 334, 336 [75 Cal.Rptr. 616]; see People v. Gatlin (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 31, 44–45 [257 Cal.Rptr. 171] [constructive possession means knowingly having the right of control over the property directly or through another]; People v. Scott 108 Cal.App.2d 231, 234 [238 P.2d 659] [two or more persons may jointly possess property]. [↩]
- California Penal Code 496(b) – Every swap meet vendor, as defined in Section 21661 of the Business and Professions Code, and every person whose principal business is dealing in, or collecting, merchandise or personal property, and every agent, employee, or representative of that person, who buys or receives any property of a value in excess of nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) that has been stolen or obtained in any manner constituting theft or extortion, under circumstances that should cause the person, agent, employee, or representative to make reasonable inquiry to ascertain that the person from whom the property was bought or received had the legal right to sell or deliver it, without making a reasonable inquiry, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170. Every swap meet vendor, as defined in Section 21661 of the Business and Professions Code, and every person whose principal business is dealing in, or collecting, merchandise or personal property, and every agent, employee, or representative of that person, who buys or receives any property of a value of nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or less that has been stolen or obtained in any manner constituting theft or extortion, under circumstances that should cause the person, agent, employee, or representative to make reasonable inquiry to ascertain that the person from whom the property was bought or received had the legal right to sell or deliver it, without making a reasonable inquiry, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. [↩]
- California Penal Code 496a(a) – Every person who is a dealer in or collector of junk, metals, or secondhand materials, or the agent, employee, or representative of such dealer or collector, and who buys or receives any wire, cable, copper, lead, solder, mercury, iron, or brass which he or she knows or reasonably should know is ordinarily used by or ordinarily belongs to a railroad or other transportation, telephone, telegraph, gas, water, or electric light company, or a county, city, city and county, or other political subdivision of this state engaged in furnishing public utility service, without using due diligence to ascertain that the person selling or delivering the same has a legal right to do so, is guilty of criminally receiving that property, and shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 , or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment. [↩]
- California Penal Code 496(b) [misdemeanors] [↩]
- CALCRIM 1750 “A defendant who receives more than one item of stolen property on a single occasion commits one offense of receiving stolen property” (People v. Lyons (1958) 50 Cal.2d 245, 275 [324 P.2d 556]. [↩]
- “A defendant charged with receiving stolen property can rely on the affirmative defense that he intended to return the stolen property at the time that he obtained possession of it.” (People v. Dishman (1982) 128 CA3d 717, 721.) “As is true of all affirmative defenses relating to the negation of an element of the offense, the defendant has the burden to present substantial evidence in support of the defense.” (See People v. Figueroa (1986) 41 C3d 714, 721.;[CALJIC 14.66] [↩]
- CALCRIM 1750 – “Receiving stolen property is a general intent crime, one element of the offense is knowledge that the property was stolen, which is a speciﬁc mental state. With regard to the element of knowledge, receiving stolen property is a “speciﬁc intent crime” as that term is used in Penal Code sections 29.4(b) and 28(a). People v. Reyes (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 975, 985 [61 Cal.Rptr.2d 39].) Therefore, the defendant should have the opportunity to introduce evidence and requestinstructions regarding the lack of requisite knowledge.” [↩]
- People v. Allen (99) 21 C4th 846 [89 CR2d 279] “A thief may not be convicted both of theft (PC 484, PC 487) and receiving or concealing stolen property under PC 496. However, based on the 1992 amendment to PC 496, the court disapproved a line of cases that held that the thief could not be convicted of receiving even though there was no conviction for the theft. The court held that as long as the defendant is not convicted of the theft, even if the statute of limitations on that charge has not run, he or she may be convicted of receiving.”[CALJIC 14.65] [↩]