California Penal Code §496 – Receipt of Stolen Property
California Penal Code §496 makes it a crime to buy or receive property if you know it has been stolen.
What constitutes receiving stolen property under Penal Code §496?
You violate California Penal Code §496 when:
- You buy or receive property that has been obtained by theft or extortion (or you attempt to do so), AND
- You know such property has been so stolen or obtained;
- You conceal, sell, withhold, or aid someone else in concealing, selling, or withholding property from its owner (or attempt to do so), AND
- You know that the property has been obtained by theft or extortion.
The legal definition of “theft”
For purposes of Penal Code §496, theft includes shoplifting and other forms of common theft (technically known as “larceny”).
Example: Beth shoplifts a pair of sunglasses from a department store. She gives them to her boyfriend, Andy, and tells him she stole the glasses for him. Because Beth obtained the glasses by theft and Andy knows this, he is guilty of receiving stolen property.
Under Penal Code §496, however, theft also includes embezzlement, false pretenses, and similar “tricks.”
Example: James advertises himself as a fine rug cleaner and promises free pick-up and delivery. When he picks up rugs, however, he delivers them to Kevin, who sells them at a swap meet. James is guilty of theft of the rugs by false pretenses. And assuming Kevin knows the rugs were unlawfully obtained, Kevin is guilty of receiving stolen property.
The legal definition of “extortion”
Property is obtained by means of extortion when:
- It is obtained from someone with that person's consent, and
- Such consent was obtained through the use of force or fear.
Example: Patty takes photos of Omar snorting cocaine at a party. She threatens to post the photos online unless Omar gives her his camera. Patty has obtained the camera by means of extortion.
What does it mean to “receive” stolen property under Penal Code §496?
You receive property when you take possession and control of it.
You do not need to hold or touch property to possess it. You possess it when you have control over it, or the right to control it, either personally or through another person.
Example: Louis lets a friend store some stolen stereo equipment in his garage. Even though Louis never touches the equipment, he has received stolen property. This is because Louis has the right to control his garage and he knows the stolen property is there.
Two or more people can possess property at the same time.
Example: Janet keeps stolen jewelry in a kitchen cabinet in the apartment she shares with her two roommates. Because all of the roommates have the right to control the kitchen cabinet, they jointly possess the stolen jewelry.
Note that this doesn't necessarily mean the roommates are guilty of receiving stolen property. If they don't know the jewelry is there, they haven't violated Penal Code §496.
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Punishment for receiving stolen property under California Penal Code §496
Violation of Penal Code §496 is a generally a misdemeanor if the property is worth nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or less.
As a misdemeanor, receipt of stolen property is punishable by up to one (1) year in county jail.
Receiving stolen property becomes a California “wobbler” offense, however, if:
- It is worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), OR
- The person receiving it is legally required to register as a California sex offender (Megan's Law),[i] OR
A “wobbler” offense can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, in the prosecutor's discretion.
If charged as a misdemeanor, punishment is as set forth above. As a felony, punishment for violating Penal Code §496 is 16 months, or two (2) or three (3) years in California state prison.
You cannot be convicted both of stealing and of receiving the same property. If you possessed stolen property because you were the one who stole it, you can be convicted of theft / extortion, OR of receiving stolen property -- but not both.
In addition to jail or prison time, receipt of stolen property may subject you to a civil lawsuit by the rightful owner of the property. In such a case, you may be required to pay three times the owner's actual damages, plus the owner's attorney's fees and other costs of bringing suit against you.
Defenses to receiving stolen property in violation of Penal Code §496
While not an exhaustive list, possible defenses to California Penal Code §496 may include:
- You didn't buy or receive any stolen property (you didn't do it).
Example: Your friend asks you to hold onto his iPad for him. If the iPad rightfully belongs to him, you are not in receipt of stolen property.
- You didn't know the property was stolen.
Example: Let's say that in the above example, the iPad your friend asked you to hold for him wasn't his. If you didn't know that, you are not guilty of receiving stolen property.
- You didn't know you were in possession of the property.
Example: Someone swiped a video game from a store at the mall and hid it in your backpack. They intended to steal it back from you if you made it out of the store. Since you didn't know it was there, you haven't violated Penal Code §496.
- The property was worth less than $950.
Example: The police charge you with felony receipt of a 128GB iPad Air2 with WiFi + cellular. Since it costs $829 new, the charge should be reduced to a misdemeanor. (Although if it was in a $200 leather bag, the prosecutor might try to argue that the value of the property exceeds $950).
- You knowingly took someone else's property but, at the time you received it, you intended to return it.
Example: Your phone's battery died. You took your friend's phone without telling her so that you could text your roommate you were going to be late. You planned on returning the phone before your friend ever noticed it was missing. However, you absent-mindedly put it in your pocket. Since you intended to return the phone, it isn't stolen property.
- You had possession of someone else's property but, at the time you received it, you intended to deliver it to law enforcement.
Example: Your friend asked you to hold onto some stolen property for him. You agreed, but only so you could turn it over to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff Station the following day. Before you were able to get to the station, however, you were arrested. Since you intended from the beginning to give the property to the police, you are not guilty of receiving stolen property.
Note that these last two defenses don't apply if you initially decided to steal the property and only changed your mind about giving it back to the owner or to the law enforcement later on. The defenses also do not apply if you received stolen property intending to return it or turn it over to the police, but later changed your mind and decided to keep it.
Theft – California Penal Code §484
Under California law, theft is defined as the unlawful taking of someone else's property.
When the property is valued at not more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), it is considered petty theft (California Penal Code §488).
The punishment for first-time petty theft is usually a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), and/or up to six (6) months in county jail.
If the property is worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), however, it is grand theft (California Penal Code §487).
The punishment for grand theft depends on the type of property stolen.
Grand theft of a firearm is always a felony. It is punishable by 16 months, or two or three years in California state prison.
Otherwise, grand theft is a California wobbler offense. If charged as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to one (1) year in county jail.
As a felony, the potential punishment for grand theft includes 16 months, or two or three years in California state prison.
Extortion -- California Penal Code §518
You commit the crime of extortion (a/k/a “blackmail") when you use force or fear to obtain money or property from another person.
Extortion is a felony punishable by two, three or four years in California state prison if it is accomplished by force or by threat of:
- an unlawful injury to a person or property;
- accusing a person (or a relative or family member of that person) of a crime;
- exposing or imputing to another person a deformity, disgrace, or crime;
- exposing a secret affecting someone (or that person's relative or family member); or
- reporting someone's immigration status (or suspected immigration status) or that of the person's relative or family member.
Otherwise, extortion is usually a “wobbler” offense. If charged as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to one (1) year in county jail. As a felony, it carries a possible fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000), and/or 16 months, or two or three years in California state prison.
What can I do if I am charged with receiving stolen property?
If you have been charged under California Penal Code §496, it is important to speak with a skilled California criminal defense lawyer as early as possible. The punishment for receiving stolen property can be as little as misdemeanor probation, or as much as four years in state prison and a $10,000 fine. With a vigorous defense, the charges can be minimized – or even dismissed entirely.
At the Kann California Defense Group, we are committed to fighting for your rights. We represent clients throught Ventura, Santa Clarita, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Encino, Century City, and many other Southern California cities.
If you or someone you know has been accused of receiving stolen property, contact us today for a free and confidential consultation.
[i] See California Penal Code §290(c).
[ii] See California Penal Code §667 (e)(2)(C)(iv).