Defendants accused of larceny have some powerful defenses at their disposal to counter the charges. Prosecutors must prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, so if a defendant can cast doubt on the prosecutor's case concerning any of the required elements for larceny, they stand a good chance of acquittal.
To recap, larceny is:
- The unlawful taking and carrying away of
- Someone else's property
- Without the consent of the owner and with
- The intent to deprive the owner of the property permanently
If a defendant can show that their actions didn't meet any or all of these elements, then the prosecution has not proved its case.
Focusing on the elements should be a defendant's first defense, but other defenses exist even when the defendant actually admits to taking the property.
In addition to the major categories of defenses below, there are some commonly used defenses that may or may not help a defendant accused of larceny.
For example, an attempt to return a piece of stolen property, or its equivalent value, to the original owner will not remove responsibility for the original larceny. If the defendant intended to return the property when they took it, however, no larceny occurred (remember that larceny requires intent to deprive the owner of the property permanently). Defendants will have trouble proving this at trial, however. In addition, a defendant who does intend to return a piece of stolen property will have to demonstrate that they had the substantial ability to do so.
Also, stealing from a spouse cannot act as a defense to larceny charges if the spouses aren't living together. If the spouses do live together, however, then any taking of property would fall under the designation of misappropriation of marital property rather than larceny.
Some defendants try to claim that the stolen property was illicit, thus no larceny occurred, but the nature of the stolen good has no bearing on the larceny charge. If, for example, a defendant stole a shipment of counterfeit handbags, a larceny has occurred regardless of whether or not the contents of the shipment were illegal.
Belief of Ownership or Right
A person doesn't commit larceny by taking their own property, thus a defendant who has a good-faith belief that they own a piece of property or have a right to use it hasn't engaged in larceny by taking the property. This is the case even if the belief is false or unreasonable.
The defendant has the burden of showing that they had an honest belief their ownership or use right, however, which can be difficult to back up with evidence.
Defendants often claim entrapment when facing larceny charges. Entrapment occurs when someone induces an innocent party to commit a crime that they normally wouldn't have committed. In the case of larceny, someone often a police officer will convince another to steal something that they wouldn't otherwise have taken. The defendant claiming entrapment must not have had any prior inclination to commit the crime, and must do so only on the enticement of the entrapping party.
For example, if police officers set up a car with the keys in the ignition and just wait for someone to come up and attempt to steal it, no entrapment has taken place. If, on the other hand, a police officer points out the car to a passerby and encourages them to take the car, the passerby would have a strong argument in support of an entrapment defense.
Taking property without the consent of the owner forms one of the essential components of larceny. Thus, if the owner consents to the taking, it does not amount to a larceny.
This situation can arise in several different contexts. An owner of a piece of property could ask someone to fake a theft in order to file an insurance claim for the property, for example. Since the owner consented to the taking, the person who carries off the property would not have committed larceny - insurance fraud, perhaps, but not larceny.
Sometimes, however, a property owner might suspect that someone intends to steal their property and will create an opportunity for the person to commit larceny to test their suspicion. In such an instance, the person taking the property would still have engaged in larceny since the criminal design began with them rather than the owner of the property. The owner didn't consent to the taking, they simply wanted to catch the thief in the act.
As with other crimes, defendants can claim that someone else forced them to commit a larceny through threats of force, blackmail, etc. If a defendant can offer sufficient proof for this claim, a jury may find that they did not act voluntarily and should not bear responsibility for the crime.
This may also apply to threats against third parties, although some states specifically prohibit defendants from raising a duress defense when the threatened injury is directed at a third party.