How Storytelling Can Help Dismiss a Case

IMG_4561-300x225Storytelling is important.  There are books out there that claim to teach storytelling, but its more of an art than a science, so I’m not super confident much can be learned from a book.  The most common example of this is learning how to swim.  Sure, you can read a book that will “teach” you how to swim–but if you’ve never been in the water–that book knowledge may not be a safe way to go.  I’m just saying.

I owned a record studio for many years, and storytelling can make or break a recording artist.  Much like psychologists who love to study twins separated at birth, we studio geeks love to study the course of the same story told by different singers.  One classic example of this is a song Otis Redding wrote and recorded in 1965, “Respect.”  The song did well on the soul charts, but when Aretha Franklin sang Otis’ song in 1967, she told a different story with the same lyrics.  She made history with this song, really.  Same lyrics as Otis.   Absolutely owned it.  The same effect was not had when Phil Collins covered The Supremes’ classic “You Can’t Hurry Love”.  Diana Ross’ vocals are  classic on that track, and Phil Collins didn’t come close to wrestling ownership away from The Supremes.

Do you think that cops get tired of hearing everyone’s story?

The problem is, everyone thinks they can talk their way out of a criminal charge.  This is America, and even though folks have the right to have an attorney present, not everyone exercises this right.  Yes, this is a bad idea on many levels.  Remember, there is an art to storytelling, and even true stories come out sounding fishy once the police get done misquoting you.  But, every now and then the right story will get a case dismissed.  Sure, I’m spoiling the ending, but it will be an interesting ride.

Today we’re digging into Rodriguez v. State, 2017 Fla. App. LEXIS 19278 (Fla. 2d DCA 2017).  Rodriguez decided to buy some farm chemicals at a steep discount, knowing the stuff was stolen.  Rodriguez didn’t realize was that the entire sale was a sting operation from the get go.  Imagine a farm version of NBC’s To Catch a Predator.

Anyway, Rodriguez was convicted by a jury of dealing in stolen property, the stolen property being the chemicals which he purchased knowing they were stolen.

Before I tell you the story Rodriguez told the police, we should first discuss the crime “dealing in stolen property.”  Its a second degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.  Its a pretty simple concept, too.  First, you take possession of the stolen property, and then, you knowingly transfer that stolen property to another.  In other words, the charge is designed to catch fencers, people who redistribute stolen goods.  Simple enough, right?

When Rodriguez was arrested, he told the police that he was not going to resell the stolen farm chemicals, he was just going to use the chemicals on his own farm.  The State argued at trial that Rodriguez’ use of these chemicals on his own farm constituted a transfer or distribution of sorts involving the stolen goods, and the jury bought this argument.  Thus, Rodriguez was convicted.

But, there’s always an appeal.

So, up on appeal, the Second District Court of Appeals had some concerns about the prosecutor’s theory that Rodriguez had redistributed the stolen chemicals by using them on his own farm.  They reasoned that, much like a fencer of stolen goods places the goods back into the stream of commerce by reselling them, Rodriguez was dealing in stolen property “by using the herbicide for a commercial farming project and thereby placing it ‘into the stream of commerce.”  id. at 3.

Are you with me so far?  Don’t feel bad if you’re not, because the appellate court was also a little confused by the prosecutor’s logic here.

The appeals court threw out Rodriguez’ conviction for dealing in stolen property, noting that “the gravamen of [dealing in stolen property] is the prohibition against knowingly transferring stolen property to another.” id.  They went on to say that “the dealing in stolen property statute was not designed to punish persons who steal for personal use.  Rather it was designed to dismantle the criminal network of thieves and fences who knowingly redistribute stolen property.” id. at 4.

Rodriguez told the police he was using the chemicals for his own farm, and more importantly, the prosecutors never presented any evidence to contradict this story.  Case dismissed.  Good story.  True, I’m sure, but also good.

As a side note, most dealing in stolen property cases arise out of pawn shop transactions.  Pawn shops are the quintessential fencing location which will, in effect, put stolen goods back “into the stream of commerce”.   The case of State v. Nesta stands for the proposition that “the sale of stolen jewelry to a pawn broker constituted dealing in stolen property notwithstanding defendant’s argument that he stole the jewelry for personal use and did not intend to place it into the stream of commerce.” 617 So. 2d 720 (Fla. 2d DCA 1993).  

So, we know that dealing in stolen property charges can be easy to prove when they originate from a pawn shop transaction, but there are stories that can make even pawn shop cases difficult to prove.  In the case of Bertone v. State, for example, a pawn shop case was dismissed because the story told was “patently reasonable”.  870 So. 2d 923 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004).  Also, the circumstances surrounding the pawning of items may be enough to have the charges dismissed, and you’ll want to check out the case of Valdez v. State for more insights on a circumstantial pawn shop defense. 492 So. 2d 750 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986).