Contractor Rips You Off. Is It a Crime?

IMG_3136-300x225I hired a “friend” (yes, air quotes) to do my kitchen cabinets a few years ago.  I overpaid for the entire project because it was helping a friend that needed the money.  Unfortunately, I got screwed toward the end of the job.  I could have sued.  It was so bad, I could have pressed criminal charges.   As my significant other will attest, I still harbor anger over this situation.  Yes, forgiveness would help me out some, but when it comes to getting ripped off by someone you thought was your friend, its easier said than done.

There are entire books written on “How To Forgive”, and these books make forgiveness seem like some sort of science.  Just follow the charts and checklists, and you’ll be healed.  But it’s not a science and I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation as to what happens inside of me when I forgive.    When people say “I need you to forgive ME”, they’re just looking to gain the outward effects of forgiveness.  Let’s say a wife cheats on her husband–and consequently gets the angry cold shoulder forever–the wife’s hope of forgiveness is just that her husband will bring back the love and warmth he once had for his wife.

I get it.  The world would be a better place if we all forgave each other–but how do you do that?  Most importantly, what happens on the inside?

I don’t know.

I didn’t press charges on the contractor “friend” that did my kitchen.  Our real life example case for today involved a similar situation where charges were pressed over a kitchen deal gone bad.  In Leggett v. State, a homeowner hired a carpenter Carl Leggett to remodel her kitchen.  2018 Fla.App.LEXIS 701 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018).  The homeowner gave Leggett a $2,250 check as a deposit to start the work, and they had an agreement that this work was to be completed within 2 weeks.  So far, so good, right?

The check was cashed that same day, but Carl Leggett never showed up to begin the work.  Oh, that sinking feeling.  Two weeks went by, and the homeowner never heard back from Leggett.   No show, no call.  Months went by, and Leggett was arrested for grand theft third degree and contracting without a license.

A jury found Leggett guilty of grand theft and the judge sentenced him to five years in prison.  By the way, that’s the maximum sentence for a grand theft of the third degree.

The question on appeal was simple.  Was this a crime?  After all, people fail to fulfill their contractual obligations all the time.  Could you imagine a world in which folks who do not complete their contractual obligations go to prison?

The difference between theft and not involves one not-so-simple concept: intent. Leggett appealed his conviction, claiming that the State never proved he had an intent to steal.  How is “intent to steal” proven in a contractor theft case?

As we mentioned above, Leggett cashed the homeowner’s check the same day they signed their agreement to rehab her kitchen.  Both of these facts were presented to the jury, and these facts are enough to prove intent to steal.  The problem is, did the State really prove these two things?  Let’s take a closer look.

First, did the State prove the homeowner’s check was actually cashed?  To prove this, the State presented testimony from the homeowner.  The homeowner told the jury that her check was cashed, and she knew this because her bank told her so.  Yes Houston, we have a problem.

Leggett’s defense attorney objected to the homeowner’s testimony as to what the bank told her about her check.  This was hearsay and we lawyers cannot present witnesses who testify as to what someone else told them.  (The State could have easily admitted the bank records via the “business records exception” to the hearsay rule, but explaining this would bore you to tears)

So, let’s say the State was, somehow, able to prove that the homeowner’s check was cashed.  How would the State prove that Carl Leggett cashed it?  Yes, a signature that looked like Carl Leggett’s signature was on the back of the check, but no witness was called by the State who could verify that Leggett signed that check.  A handwriting expert would have helped here, or maybe someone from the bank.  No such witness was called, and the appellate court found that the State never proved Leggett cashed the check.

If the State didn’t prove Leggett cashed the check–they didn’t prove grand theft, did they?

The appellate court threw out Leggett’s conviction and called for his immediate release from prison, reasoning that “the eivdence of felonious intent presented by the State in support of its third-degree grand theft charge against Leggett was totally insufficient to support his conviction on that count and the trial court should have granted the judgment of acquittal.  This is an ordinary civil breach of contract case.”

Furthermore, because the State failed to prove “that the check was actually cashed, and by whom, the totality of the circumstances showed only that Leggett agreed to perform the remodeling work, took the deposit check, and subsequently failed to perform the agreed-upon task.  This falls far short of the competent and substantial evidence necessary to prove the felonious intent required to sustain a conviction for grand theft.  The fact that Leggett failed to perform the work does not, alone, prove felonious intent.” id. at 5 – 6.  Footnote 5 of the appellate decision says it all: “We are dismayed by the State’s choice to pursue this criminal prosecution all the way through an appeal in the face of such weak or non-existent facts and evidence.”

Was a crime committed against this homeowner?  Yes.  Did the State prove it?  No.  We mentioned above how the State dropped the ball on proving who cashed  the homeowner’s check, but the homeowner also dropped the ball on this one.  Leggett’s conviction was overturned based upon a lack of “intent”.  If the homeowner had simply sent a certified notice to Leggett after 60 days of no work–Florida law does not require that intent be proven (this quirk is found in Florida Statute 489.126(3)(b)(3), and you can find more info by clicking here).