We recently had a tough case that was dismissed after a long battle in Snohomish County.
It’s one of my favorite things – a completely innocent client. Clients don’t always come to you that way, but I sure am happy when they do. It changes your approach a little, when the client hasn’t committed a crime. And when you can actually prove they are innocent as well, even better.
In our case, a friend of our client came to him with some property relating to heating and air conditioning and wanted the client to help the friend sell it off via the Internet. The friend told the client that he was cleaning out his garage and needed to offload the equipment to make room. Unbeknownst to our client, the equipment had actually been stolen the month before from a local HVAC company, who reported the theft to police. The client helped his friend, but police caught wind of the transaction and showed up at the location of the deal. The friend ran away and was later arrested by the police. Our client never tried to run at all, because he thought the deal was legit. He told the police everything that happened, and even walked the police through text messages with the friend, photos he took of the property (showing no prior owner identifiers) and the online ad he placed. It all didn’t matter, the police and prosecution didn’t believe him, and the client was charged with trafficking in stolen property.
“Traffic” is normally a noun, as in, “this traffic is terrible today on the freeway.” But in the law, the word “traffic” becomes a verb, which means to “sell, transfer, distribute, dispense, or otherwise dispose of stolen property to another person, or to buy, receive, possess, or obtain control of stolen property, with intent to sell, transfer, distribute, dispense, or otherwise dispose of the property to another person.”
If you come into possession of property you know to be stolen, and then you intentionally sell (or even give) that property to someone else, you’ve just committed the crime of trafficking in stolen property. It’s a serious felony crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
You have to know the property is stolen though. Now, if you merely suspect the property is stolen, it may or may not be a crime to sell it. But if the circumstances clearly show that a reasonable person would know the property is stolen, then you can be presumed to know it was stolen if you later sell it. The classic example I like to use is this: You’re at a gas station putting fuel into your car. A man walks up to you and offers to sell you a gold Rolex, for $50. You look at the watch, and it looks absolutely genuine. The man tells you a story about his dearly departed grandfather leaving it to him, to assure you that it’s both real and not stolen.
The watch might be real, and it’s possible that it’s not stolen either. But if you buy that watch and later sell it someone else, or give it to them, watch out. If it turns out that the watch was in fact stolen (a likely scenario) and the true owner tracks down the watch again, it’s possible to come after both the thief of the watch, and the re-seller (i.e., you). You see this a lot with pawn shops – the owner of property that was just stolen will canvas local pawn shops looking for their property. Once they find it and prove the property belongs to them, the pawn shop will contact police. Then the pawn shop will give the police the transaction information of the person who brought in the property. This will include their ID, signature, and many times a video recording of the person making the transaction.
All that means bad news for the person pawning the property, because the government can usually prove that the person sold the property to someone else. Then the only real question becomes, did the pawning person know that the property was stolen?
The law says that to know something means to be aware of a fact, circumstance or result. That’s sort of saying the same thing, but the law also allows knowledge to be established where “a reasonable person in the same situation” has information to believe a fact exists. That means, a jury can find that you had knowledge that the property you sold was stolen, if, based on the information you had at the time, a reasonable person under the same circumstances would know the property was stolen.
The law goes even further though. There’s a special part of this law that says if you recklessly traffic stolen property, that you can still be found guilty of a felony. That means, you don’t always have to know property is stolen, but if the circumstances surrounding your acquisition of the property would have lead a reasonable person to conclude the property is likely stolen, and knowing this, you disregarded that fact and sold the property anyway, then you can be held accountable for trafficking stolen property even if you technically didn’t know the property was stolen. In my example above, buying a Rolex at a gas station is a pretty sure indicator that the goods you bought are not legitimate. Another example would be where you tried to re-sell a ring engraved with a name different than that of the person selling it to you originally. There are clues that would tip off a “reasonable” person that this transaction is not above-board.
In my example, you could probably defend against a charge by arguing that you didn’t know the property was stolen, because you believed it was a fake Rolex. $50 for a fake Rolex might actually be a reasonable purchase, in any circumstance.
Back to our client’s case. We spent a good deal of time working on the prosecutor, providing lots of evidence of our client’s good behavior, honest intentions, and his due diligence. The client was smart enough to take photos of the property showing that there no markings or names written on the property. There was nothing at all indicating previous ownership, and so under the circumstances it was reasonable for our client to accept his friend’s representations that the property was legitimate.
After months and months of heavy negotiations, the prosecutor’s office finally agreed that it was going to have a very difficult time proving this case beyond all reasonable doubt, and dismissed the charges against our client.
A conviction on these charges for which our client was innocent, even for a misdemeanor, would have been very destructive for his mental health and his employment prospects. Because he was innocent, we were ready to take the case the whole way.
If you’re charged with a crime, you need a criminal defense attorney who is able and willing to go into battle if necessary. While we are confident that we would have won in front of a jury, a trial carries a lot of risk. We are happy that the negotiations were successful and that the case was dismissed without any chance that an innocent client could be found guilty.