Theft Defenses

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

There are a number of legal defenses that may apply in theft cases, even if the underlying facts support the claim that the defendant took property from another party without permission. For instance, the alleged theft could have stemmed from an honest misunderstanding of ownership or it could have been done under duress. As with any criminal case, it really depends on the specific facts.

Assuming that a taking of property by the individual accused actually did occur, here are a few of the more typical theft defenses that may apply to your case. Keep in mind that theft is referred to as "larceny" in several jurisdictions.

Claim of Right or Ownership of Property

An individual who's accused of stealing property may have a valid defense if they're able to establish that they had a good faith belief the property they took was theirs or that they had a valid claim to it. Although a somewhat straightforward defense, it's not as simple as just claiming "I thought it was mine." Typically a defendant will need to provide evidence supporting their claim.

Intoxication

It may be possible to successfully defend theft charges if a defendant is able to establish that they were intoxicated at the time the alleged theft occurred. Regardless of the type of intoxication -- alcohol, chemicals, or drugs -- if an individual was unable to form the required intent to steal (for example, they mistakenly thought an item belonged to them), they may have a viable intoxication defense.

For instance, if you're charged with theft after mistakenly taking someone's expensive leather coat (thinking it was yours) because you were too drunk to notice, you may have a valid defense. However, you still would need to provide proof. Also, remember that public intoxication -- while a possible theft defense -- is a criminal offense in its own right.

Return of Property as a Theft Defense

People often wonder if returning stolen property can provide a defense to theft or prevent charges from being brought in the first place. Returning stolen property generally doesn't provide a defense to a charge of theft. Still, doing so can definitely paint a more sympathetic picture to a prosecutor for purposes of a possible plea deal, and also may help with reducing the penalties in a case.

A different and viable defense may exist, however, if a defendant is able to establish they had the intent to return the property at the time it was taken and actually could do so. It's fairly common to defend theft charges by claiming the property was just being "borrowed." Similarly, you may be able to defend against theft charges if you simply forgot to return something you borrowed.

Entrapment

The defense of entrapment applies when an individual commits a crime, but was induced to do so by someone in order to prosecute the target. In a theft case, the entrapment defense could apply if the idea or intent to steal came from the entrapping person (the entrapment victim is lured into committing the theft), all with the goal of apprehending and prosecuting the targeted individual.

Let an Attorney Help You With Your Theft Defense

If you're shopping and you accidentally take merchandise to the bathroom or put a store item in your purse, you can easily be charged with theft. Theft defenses range from innocent mistake to intoxication to entrapment, but none are valuable if you don't plead them in the right way at the right time. So if you've been charged with theft or another criminal offense, you should immediately contact an experienced, local defense lawyer.

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