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Someone Stole My Stuff, and I’m Gonna Steal It Back! (Is That Legal?)

theft.jpgRemember what your Mom told you as a kid, “Just because your friend did it doesn’t make it right for you”. Or, how about the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Well, we’re talking about a different rule, along the lines of ‘do unto others as they have done to you’.

Florida’s theft laws make it clear that theft of any type is illegal, but recently one Florida court has put a different spin on the situation. In the case of T.D.W. v. State, 42 So. 3d 959 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010), the juvenile defendant (FYI, juvenile names are always abbreviated) was convicted of Robbery because he forcefully approached a victim to retrieve his cell phone. T.D.W. testified at trial that he had a good faith belief that the victim possessed his cell phone, so he was going to take it back. At this point, it’s important to note that, technically speaking, a theft charge arises out of an ‘intent to deprive an owner of property’. So, how could a theft occur if the victim of the robbery wasn’t actually the ‘owner’ of the cell phone? The court in T.D.W. threw out T.D.W.’s conviction, reasoning that “a well-founded belief in one’s right to the allegedly stolen property constitutes a complete defense to a charge of theft”, as per a prior court ruling in Thomas v. State, 526 So. 2d 183 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988).

Often times, proving ‘a well-founded belief in one’s right to the allegedly stolen property’ can be a challenge, and the court’s analysis focuses on how the theft was accomplished, as well as the “reasonableness” of the belief in ownership. A central Florida court explained it this way: “how the defendant can prove his claim that he actually had such an honest belief, it has been pointed out that the openness of the taking, as well as the reasonableness of the belief, though not conclusive, will buttress his claim of good faith”. Owens v. State, 866 So.2d 129, 131 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004).

Now we’re back to the original question, is it legal to retrieve stolen stuff? Well, did you notice that every case discussed above involved a person that was actually arrested and convicted of theft? Yes, the theft convictions were eventually overturned, but who wants to sit in jail waiting for that to happen? My recommendation is to contact local law enforcement, have them facilitate a smooth return of property. In Orlando, you may find an officer willing to become a “peacekeeper” for this retrieval process, but be sure to have proof of ownership. And as always, should you go against my advice and take the law into your own hands, I know an excellent Orlando criminal defense attorney….