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Is It a Crime to Break a Rental Agreement?

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Remember that old Hertz commercial from the ’70s with OJ Simpson running through the airport like he’s heading towards the endzone?

We don’t want to be late  returning our rental car, do we?  We might get charged for an extra day or an extra hour, or criminally charged.

Have you ever read your car rental agreement, or just rushed through initialing all of the boxes?   Believe it or not, initialing those boxes (or not) may create some interesting issues later. And, that’s our real-life case for today.  Try to contain your excitement, because this case contains an important lesson for defending criminal cases.

Sampaio was arrested for the felony of failing to return a hired vehicle.  He didn’t return a car, and he signed “most of” his car rental agreement.  Yes, he conveniently skipped an important box, but more on that later.

The felony he was charged with has some odd quirks to it, so to understand how Sampaio faced 5 years in prison for not returning his rental car on time, we’re going to need to take a closer look at the law. State v. Sampaio, 2020 Fla. App. Lexis 2076 (Fla. 4th DCA 2020).

Before we talk about the law, let’s chat about those nasty car rental contracts that require your initials 36 times.  Initial that you’re not getting extra insurance.  Initial that you’re not going to smoke in the car.  Initial that the car (you’ve never seen) is in perfect condition.  Initial that you’re gluten-free.

Florida Statute 812.155 is called “failing to return hired or leased personal property or equipment“, and it says that if you lease something “under an agreement to return the personal property . . . [and] knowingly abandon or refuse to return the personal property or equipment as agreed, [it is] a misdemeanor of the second degree . . . unless the value . . . is $300 or more; in that case the person commits a felony of the third degree.”

Now, remember our guy, Sampaio?  He had a car rental agreement.  He didn’t return the car on time.  But, he didn’t initial the sacred box that, under Florida Statute 812.155, a renter must initial in order to be placed on notice that they’re going to be arrested.

Stay with me here, we’re almost there.

So, Sampaio didn’t initial that part of the car rental agreement that provides notice that you can be arrested under Florida Statute 812.155(6) for not returning the car.  It states that “as a prerequisite to prosecution under this section, the following statement must be contained in the agreement . . . and the statement must be initialed by the person leasing the rental property or equipment:

Failure to return rental property or equipment upon expiration of the rental period and failure to pay all amounts due . . . are evidence of abandonment or refusal to redeliver the property, punishable in accordance with Section 812.155, Florida Statutes.

Sampaio didn’t initial this section. So, Sampaio’s attorney filed a Motion to Dismiss the felony because the rental company did not comply with the notice requirements found in 812.155(6).  The judge granted the Motion to Dismiss.

Case closed, right? Why am I even writing about this, and why have you been strung along with me?

Well, there’s a big problem with this dismissal that the prosecutor didn’t catch, and the judge didn’t catch.  It’s Criminal Law 101.

On appeal, the state argued that Sampaio’s failure to initial the box (warning him of potential prosecution) doesn’t apply to this case, because the charge was “failing to return a hired vehicle” under Florida Statute 817.52.  There wasn’t a charge here under 812.155.  Hum.

What happened here reminds me of an important rule of defending criminal cases.  Criminal Law 101: Before you read the police report,  first read the charges.  Read the statute.  Do what we just did, above, and below.

When the prosecutors filed official charges against Sampaio, they filed a document called an “Information”.  The charge was failing to return a hired vehicle under 817.52(3), which reads:

“(3) FAILURE TO REDELIVER HIRED VEHICLE–Whoever, after hiring a motor vehicle under an agreement to redeliver the same to the person letting such motor vehicle . . . at the termination of the period for which it was let, shall, . . . with intent to defraud, abandon or willfully refuse to redeliver such vehicle as agreed shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a felony of the third degree.”

Notice something about this statute that is not found in 812.155?  There is no notice requirement in 817.52(3).  So, this statute doesn’t require a car renter to “initial the notice box”.   That is only required if the charges are brought under  812.155.

The appeals court sent Sampaio’s case back onto the trial docket, finding that: “although it appears that the defendant could have been charged under either statute, because the statutes proscribe similar conduct, the defendant was charged solely under section 817.52 and not section 812.155. . . . Accordingly, because section 817.52 does not include a notice requirement, the trial court erred in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the rental agreement did not satisy section 812.155(6)’s notice requirement.” id. at 9.

As you may recall, one of my running themes here is the fact that there are so many criminal laws out there — sometimes even the judges get confused.   This is one of those cases.

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