Grand theft is the equivalent of first degree theft. Theft can be categorized as grand theft -- and therefore deemed a more serious offense -- for a variety of reasons. Laws in many states consider a theft to be grand theft when:
A theft that does not qualify as a grand theft is petty, or second degree, theft.
Lost property. Keeping lost property can qualify as theft if the finder could reasonably return the property to its owner. For example, if Sue is bicycling along a deserted lane and sees a $100 bill floating on a puddle next to the curb, Sue would not be guilty of theft if she kept it. However, it's different if, as she's bicycling, Sue sees Charles drop a $100 bill as Charles is getting out of the car. Charles is unaware that he has dropped the money and begins to walk away. If Sue rides over, picks up the $100 bill and keeps it, Sue has committed theft. Since Sue knows that the money belongs to Charles, and she has a reasonable opportunity to return it to him, Sue commits theft by not attempting to return the money to Charles. From a legal standpoint, Sue's keeping the money when she could easily return it to its rightful owner is what is known as a "constructive" taking.
Stolen property. Buying or keeping stolen property usually translates into a crime popularly known as receiving stolen goods. To convict a defendant of receiving stolen goods, the government has to prove that property in the defendant's possession was stolen, and that the defendant acquired the property knowing that it was stolen. As is typical when a statute requires proof of knowledge and other state of mind elements, the government usually has to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove a defendant's knowledge that property had been stolen. Usually, the government's case relies on evidence that would have alerted any reasonable person that the items were hot.
Facts: Hu Gnu is an avid collector of rock-and-roll memorabilia, and he subscribes to a number of computer websites devoted to such items. A few days after a theft of rock-and-roll items from a museum is widely reported on TV and in newspapers in Hu's hometown, Hu receives an email message offering to sell a collection of Beatles memorabilia at a very low price. The seller claims that a quick sale is necessary because the seller has suffered a number of business losses. In fact, the Beatles items were stolen from the museum. Hu buys the Beatles items.
Verdict: Hu could be convicted of receiving stolen property. That's because circumstantial evidence suggests that Hu knew that he was buying hot merchandise. Hu is an experienced collector, the prices were very low, and the offer came on the heels of a widely reported museum theft.
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