Proving misdemeanor or felony theft in Florida requires proof of intent to deprive the owner of his or her rights to the property. Grand theft, as outlined in F.S. 812.014 is the unlawful taking or using of property valued at more than $300. But as our Fort Lauderdale defense lawyers point out, one’s intent in taking or using that property is key.
That’s why prosecutors in Citrus County recently dropped two grand theft charges against a roofing contractor initially accused of defrauding customers by taking nearly $15,000 in deposits without completing the work he promised. As the prosecutor explained to a reporter from the Citrus County Chronicle, the state attorney’s office would have had to have shown that the defendant took the customers’ down payment and in turn used it all for personal financial gain – not simply for running his business. What the evidence showed, however, was that he used the money to buy materials and contract labor for the jobs, but did not follow through in completing them.
This might tend to show the contractor was a poor business manager, but not that he’d committed theft, as understood by Florida law.
“That criminal element comes from that intent,” the prosecutor explained, adding that customers likely still had recourse by pursuing a claim in the civil justice system. The contractor may be compelled ultimately to repay, but the case should have been more carefully analyzed from the outside to make the determination that no crime had been committed. There is a big difference between facing a civil judgment and 10 years in prison, which was the maximum penalty he faced for conviction on two counts of third-degree grand theft.
In Florida, Theft is a Crime of “Specific Intent”
It is not enough to establish that someone took property that wasn’t theirs. Intent is critical.
Another example of this was in the 1991 case of State v. G.C. before the Florida Supreme Court. In that case, a 14-year-old accepted a ride from a friend who was driving a stolen vehicle. Soon after, police initiated a traffic stop and arrested both the driver and the young teen. The teen told police he suspected the car might have been stolen because the steering column was broken. He was found delinquent for theft, but Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed, finding that simply being present as a passenger in a stolen car after it was stolen – even if one knew it was stolen – isn’t enough on its own to support a conviction for theft. The appellate court, however, acknowledge that this conflicted with another ruling made by Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal, which was why the case wound up before the state supreme court. Justices held that while the Florida theft statute uses broad language, it can’t be applied so broadly as to remove the specific intent element of the crime. Therefore, someone who is a passenger in a vehicle who hasn’t exercised possession or control of it as to indicate the intent to participate in the “taking” of the vehicle can’t be convicted of theft.
This was further underscored in the 2000 case of Mosher v. State, wherein Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed a theft conviction against the owner of a boat repair shop in the Florida Keys. The boat was dropped off by the owner’s son for repair work in December 1997. The owner’s son then called the shop daily to inquire about the status, and was reportedly given different answers each time. Nine months later, the owner’s son demanded return of the boat or threatened to have it reported stolen. The repair shop owner returned the boat, but it was missing its powerhead, without which the boat couldn’t be started. When the boat owner’s son called to inquire about this, the repair shop owner explained it had been melted down. Instead, he delivered a much older powerhead that was rusted and pitted. The boat owner called the sheriff’s office to report the piece stolen. Several other local mechanics were called to testify as expert witnesses. They explained they wouldn’t have replaced the part without the customer’s knowledge and it would have likely taken no more than one month to complete the work. A jury convicted the defendant of grand theft. On appeal, the defense argued a motion for acquittal should have been granted because there was insufficient legal evidence to prove felonious intent to commit grand theft. The boat’s owner testified he never gave permission for the powerhead to be disposed of in a scrapyard and replaced with a cheaper one. However, the victim put his son in charge of negotiating with the repair shop – and the son was never called to testify. Therefore, there was no room for the jury to infer the defendant had felonious intent.
In the latter case here again, the defendant might fairly be accused in civil court of being a poor business manager, but not of committing felony grand theft.
Defending Against Grand Theft Charges
Lack of intent is one of the primary defenses against felony grand theft charges in Florida. Others include:
- Obtaining or using the property for lawful purposes.
- Acting out of necessity or duress.
- Consent by the owner.
- Mistake of fact (the accused mistakenly believed the property was his/hers to take).
A Florida criminal defense attorney can carefully analyze the facts of your case to determine applicable defenses and fight for unfair charges to be dropped.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Prosecutors drop criminal theft charges against Crystal River roofer, March 9, 2020, By Buster Thompson, Citrus County Chronicle
More Blog Entries:
Broward Conviction Review Unit Indicates Need for Strong Criminal Defense, May 1, 2020, Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog