Anyone can make the honest mistake of forgetting to return a borrowed item, no matter how aggravating it might be for the rightful owner. And while the person from whom you borrowed the item may wonder whether he or she may ever receive it back, your actions do not amount to theft if you just merely forgot to return the item.
From a legal perspective, in order to be accused of stealing, or theft, you would need to have had the intent to never return the item to its rightful owner. See FindLaw's Theft subsection for more articles, including "Theft Overview" and "Theft/Larceny: In Brief."
The Role of Intent
Under criminal law, the intent to commit a criminal act is called "mens rea." Criminal intent is one of the key elements that must be established by the prosecution in order to convict an individual of a crime.
Common law further distinguishes among different degrees of criminal intent: specific intent (defendant committed an act with a specific intent or purpose), general intent (defendant's act was not an accident), and strict liability crimes (defendant committed a crime, regardless of intent).
A criminal charge of theft (or larceny) generally requires the specific intent to permanently deprive another individual of his or her property. If you legitimately forgot to return a borrowed item to its rightful owner, then you lacked specific intent to steal the item. As with other specific intent crimes, much stronger and more credible evidence is required in order for the prosecution to establish guilt.
The Burden of Proof
In addition, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you had no intention to return the borrowed item and in fact planned on keeping it. For example, an email message bragging to another person that you intend to keep an item you supposedly “borrowed” could be used as evidence of theft.
Even if you did intend on keeping an item under the pretense of borrowing it, the burden of proof often is too difficult to overcome. For example, you may have asked to borrow your neighbor's lawn mower with no intention of actually returning it. If you consistently ignore your neighbor's request to return it, did you steal it?
Here's another example: Your neighbor, who is out of town, leaves his bicycle on the side of the road in front of his house. You take the bike for the weekend, but your neighbor returns home earlier than you expected, sees that his bike is missing, and files a police report claiming that his bike was stolen. You had no intention of keeping the bicycle, nor is there any evidence that you did not plan to return it. Still, you would need a good alibi (and in this example, the neighbor likely would drop charges if you were on good terms).
Have Legal Questions? Contact an Attorney
If you've borrowed someone's property and perhaps had issues returning it, you may wonder whether you can be charged with theft. Without verbal testimony or physical evidence of an intent to deprive someone of their property, a prosecutor may be unable to prove a theft charge. If you've been charged with theft, it's in your best interests to consult with a local criminal defense attorney to discuss the specific facts of your case.