In California, receiving stolen property is prohibited under Penal Code 496 PC. This section makes it a crime to
- conceal, or
property which you know to be stolen.
Although the person who actually steals the property could technically be charged with PC 496, he/she would more typically be charged with a theft offense instead.
A California "receiving stolen property" charge targets those who knowingly perform any of the above acts after the theft occurs. This means that if you knowingly receive the stolen property from the thief (or from someone who had subsequently acquired the stolen property), you may be held liable for this offense.
But keep in mind that being arrested or prosecuted for receiving stolen property doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be convicted of receiving stolen property.
You could have been wrongly arrested after a slipshod police investigation, or falsely accused by someone with an ulterior motive. Maybe you didn't know the items were stolen. And even if the evidence points to you unequivocally, your California criminal defense attorney may still be able to broker a deal to get the charge reduced or dismissed.
In the article below, we will explain:
If you have additional questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us.
In order to make a case for receiving stolen property, the prosecutor must prove three facts (otherwise known as "elements of the crime"):
- that the property was stolen,
- that you received the stolen property, and
- that you knew the property was stolen.
Although these elements seem pretty self-explanatory, further clarification may be helpful to fully understanding a California "receiving stolen property" charge.
- How is property "stolen"?
Property is stolen if it was obtained by
- petty theft or grand theft (which includes larceny, embezzlement, trick, or extortion),
- robbery, or
For property to qualify as "stolen", the person who took the property must have intended permanently to deprive the owner of that property. Under penal Code 496, this intent will pass onto you if you knowingly and subsequently receive that property.
This means that even if you weren't aware at the time that you received the property that it was stolen (but later learned or suspected that fact), you must immediately contact the owner of the property or the police to avoid prosecution.
- What does it mean to "receive" stolen property?
While "receiving" property implies an actual, physical possession of the property, that needn't be the case. You can be guilty of receiving property as long as you have possession and control over the property.
This is the case whether your possession is actual or constructive.and whether you have direct control over the property or alternatively have the right to control it. Your possession of the stolen property doesn't even need to be exclusive, as you and another/others may jointly possess the property.1
Let me give you some examples to illustrate the point.
Possession is "actual" when you physically possess it. For example, you are wearing a stolen watch.
If the stolen watch is in your nightstand drawer, you "constructively" possess it. This would be the case whether you put it there or whether the stolen watch actually belonged to your friend who concealed it there with your permission.2 In either event, California receiving stolen property law says you (and in the latter case, your friend) both possess the watch.
Like physical possession, you have direct control over the stolen property when it is on your person.
Finally, if you allowed your friend to wear the stolen watch, it would be said that you still have the right to control it.
On the other hand, California courts have held that merely being near the stolen property or having access to the stolen property is not sufficient (by itself) to sustain a Penal Code 496 PC conviction.3
- How does the prosecutor prove that I "knew" the property was stolen?
Incriminating statements (confessions and admissions) are the most obvious way to prove that you knew the property was stolen. Absent this type of direct evidence, knowledge may be inferred from the circumstances surrounding your arrest.
Examples of suspicious circumstances that may show you knew property was stolen include (but are not limited to) the fact that:
- You helped conceal the stolen property
- The price of the property was "too good to be true"
- Only cash payments were accepted (and the seller couldn't give you a receipt)
- Identifying marks (such as serial codes) were removed.
California Penal Code 496 PC sets forth separate crimes for specific persons who buy and receive certain types of stolen property. Because these people regularly deal in goods that are frequently stolen, they are held to higher standards than individuals who don't own or manage these types of businesses.
With respect to these specific vendors (listed below), knowledge that the property was stolen will be imputed if the circumstances were such that a "reasonable" person would have inquired about the circumstances surrounding the property's ownership.4
These vendors include:
- swap meet vendors and those dealing in or collecting merchandise or personal property,
- dealers or collectors of junk metals or secondhand materials who buy or receive particular metals used in providing telephone, transportation, or public utility services,
- dealers or collectors of secondhand books or other literary materials,
- those buying or receiving cars, boats, trailers, or special construction equipment, and
- those buying, selling, etc. specific personal property, including electronic equipment or appliances from which serial numbers or other identifying marks have been removed or altered5.
Owners of "chop shops" are also heavily scrutinized, because of the nature of their profession. Receiving stolen property is a charge that is commonly associated with that crime and, depending on the circumstances, may even be a lesser included offense of that charge.6
It depends on the circumstances. In fact, there are a couple of issues that merit discussion under this topic:
- Is it possible to be convicted of stealing and receiving the same property? and
- Is it possible to be convicted of, say, three counts of receiving stolen property if three different stolen items were received?
With respect to the first question, the general answer is no, although there is an exception. California Penal Code 496 specifically states that although the person who actually steals the property may be convicted of this offense, no person may be convicted of stealing and receiving the same stolen property.
However, if there is a complete separation between the theft and the subsequent receiving (an actual break in the possession and control over the property), convictions for both offenses are possible7. Below are two examples that illustrate this point.
- If you steal a car, sell it to another person, and then buy it back, you could be convicted of charges for both California grand theft auto and receiving stolen property. If you break into a locked car in order to steal it, this constitutes auto burglary. And if you use threats or violence to steal a car from someone's immediate possession, this amounts to carjacking.
- If you steal a car and are caught driving it days later, you could be convicted of California auto theft (under Vehicle Code 10851) and of receiving stolen property. In this example, your post-theft driving would provide the basis for the separation between the theft charge and the receiving charge.8
As for the second question, the answer varies, depending on the circumstances. California law holds that property received on one occasion (even if stolen from different sources) will only result in one charge of receiving stolen property.9 But, receiving multiple stolen items on different occasions (whether or not from the same person), will permit multiple convictions.10
There are several defenses that a California criminal defense attorney could present on your behalf, depending on the circumstances of your case. The following is a brief explanation of some of the most common:
- Mistake of fact / claim of right
Although these are two separate defenses, they often overlap in a California receiving stolen property case.this takes place when the claim of right is based on a mistake of fact.
Mistake of fact may be used as a defense if, for example, you didn't know that the property you acquired was stolen.11 If you didn't know that you were receiving stolen property (but assumed you were buying a legitimately owned item), you can't be convicted of receiving stolen property.
Likewise, if you believed that you had a right to the property, you are entitled to an acquittal.12 If, for example, someone was trying to sell you something that you believed already belonged to you.and you took it from them.you didn't have the necessary criminal intent required for conviction.
Both these defenses may apply as long as you held a good faith belief in their truth, even if the mistake was unreasonable or incorrect. The jury will judge whether or not you had "good faith" based on the circumstances that surrounded your arrest.
It should also be noted that even if you didn't know when you received the property that it was stolen -- but later learned that fact -- you are required to turn the property over to its rightful owner or the police at that point.13
- You didn't know you possessed the stolen property
Similarly, if you didn't know you possessed the stolen property, then you can't be convicted of a California receiving stolen property charge. If, for example, the property was placed in your car, home, etc. by another without your knowledge, you are entitled to an acquittal.
This might be the case if someone was trying to conceal the stolen property before trying to sell or use it.perhaps someone who shared or had access to your home, car, or work-space.
- Innocent intent
You can't be convicted of a California Penal Code 496 charge if you intended to return the property to its owner or the police when you bought or received the stolen property.14
However, this defense will not apply if you decided to return the property after you illegally received it. Similarly, it will not apply if you originally had the intent to return the property, but later decided to keep it instead.
- Voluntary intoxication
Although voluntary intoxication (through alcohol or drug consumption) won't by itself serve as a defense under California receiving stolen property law, it may negate the fact that you "intended" to receive stolen property.15 In the absence of this intent (which may have been precluded if you were too intoxicated), you can't be convicted of Penal Code 496.
And, of course, constitutional rights violations and improper police procedures should always be explored by your California theft crimes defense lawyer in an effort to reduce or dismiss your charges.
Receiving stolen property under California Penal Code 496 PC is a "wobbler". This means that, depending on (1) the circumstances of your case, and (2) your criminal history, this offense may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.
If convicted of a misdemeanor, you face up to one year in a county jail. If convicted of a felony, you face 16 months, or two or three years in the California State Prison.
If the stolen property was a car, trailer, special construction equipment, or a boat, you face an enhanced sentence under California Penal Code 496d PC. Although the same county jail or state prison sentence will apply, a misdemeanor conviction will subject you to an additional maximum $1,000 fine, and a felony conviction will subject you to an additional maximum $10,000 fine.
Unlike most criminal offenses, California Penal Code 496 PC sets forth civil penalties for receiving stolen property as well. The code permits an individual who was injured by your crime to collect three times the amount of his/her loss, in addition to his/her attorney's fees and the cost of the civil lawsuit.
If you would like more information or a confidential discussion of your case with a California criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at one of our local criminal law offices. We have offices located throughout Southern California, including Orange County, San Bernardino, Long Beach, Ventura and Beverly Hills.
To learn about Nevada possession of stolen property laws, go to our article on Nevada possession of stolen property laws.
1People v. Johnson, (1st Dist. 1980) 104 Cal. App. 3d 598 (".it is well settled that the possession of the stolen item need not be exclusive.")
2People v. Rossi, (3d Dist. 1936) 15 Cal. App. 2d 180 ("It is not necessary to constitute receipt of stolen property that the accused receive the physical possession of the property. If the silverware had been concealed upon the Rossi premises by others with his knowledge or consent, that would be sufficient to justify the conviction.")
3People v. Land, (1994) 30 Cal.App.4th 220 ("However, we agree with appellant, mere presence near the stolen property, or access to the location where the stolen property is found is not sufficient evidence of possession, standing alone, to sustain a conviction for receiving stolen property.")
4People v. Katz (1975) 47 cal.app.3d 294 (Actually, his burden is "to show that before so ... receiving ... such property, he made a reasonable inquiry to ascertain that the person selling or delivering the property to him had the legal right to sell or deliver it." In the absence of proof of such inquiry, the jury must assume he did not so inquire. The absence of inquiry by a secondhand dealer who received stolen property is sufficient under the instruction to require that the jury "should" find knowledge. However, the presumption operates only if the People have proved beyond a reasonable doubt (a) that the property was stolen, and (b) the existence of circumstances that should cause a reasonable person to make inquiry.
5This group is actually discussed in California Penal Code section 537e(a)
6People v. King, (App. 4 Dist. 2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 472 ("Thus, all of the elements of receiving stolen property are necessarily included in running a chop shop where, as here, it is clear from the information that the stolen property alleged to have been received is the same property, i.e., the stolen motor vehicles, that constitute the chop shop violation.")
7People v. Garza, (2005) 35 Cal. 4th 866 ("A common law rule likewise prohibits separate convictions for stealing and receiving the same property. (People v. Jaramillo (1976) 16 Cal.3d 752, 757, 129 Cal.Rptr. 306, 548 P.2d 706 ( Jaramillo).) This common law rule has an exception: It does not apply in the uncommon situation 'when there is evidence of complete divorcement between the theft and a subsequent receiving, such as when the thief has disposed of the property and subsequently receives it back in a transaction separate from the original theft.'")
8People v. Garza, above. ("A person who violates [California Vehicle Code] section 10851(a) by taking a car with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession, and who is convicted of that offense on that basis, cannot also be convicted of receiving the same vehicle as stolen property. If, on the other hand, a section 10851(a) conviction is based on posttheft driving, a separate conviction under [California Penal Code] section 496(a) for receiving the same vehicle as stolen property is not precluded.")
9People v. Lyons, (1958) 50 Cal.2d 245 ("The evidence of the accomplices shows that defendant originally received the watch and the fur coat on a single occasion. Therefore, but one offense of receiving stolen property is shown, although the goods were stolen from different sources.")
10People v. Roberts, (1960) 182 cal.app.2d 431 (Held that property received on different dates from different people warranted multiple charges for receiving stolen property.)
11California Jury Instructions -- Criminal -- 4.35 (Ignorance or mistake of fact)
12California Jury Instructions -- Criminal -- 9.44 (Robbery/larceny - Defense of claim of right)
13Naftzger v. American Numismatic Society, (1996) 42 cal.app.4th 421 ("[A]n innocent purchaser cannot withhold or sell the stolen property after learning of the theft without risk of violating [California] Penal Code section 496.
14California Jury Instructions -- Criminal -- 14.66 (Receiving stolen property with innocent intent)
15California Penal Code section 22(b)