Penal Code § 496 PC defines the crime of receiving stolen property as buying, receiving, concealing, selling or withholding any property that you know to have been obtained through theft or extortion. The offense can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony and is punishable by up to 3 years in jail.
The language of the code section reads as follows:
496. (a) Every person who buys or receives any property that has been stolen or that has been obtained in any manner constituting theft or extortion, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained, or who conceals, sells, withholds, or aids in concealing, selling, or withholding any property from the owner, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170. However, if the value of the property does not exceed nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), the offense shall be a misdemeanor, punishable only by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, if such person has no prior convictions for an offense specified in clause (iv) of subparagraph (C) of paragraph (2) of subdivision (e) of Section 667 or for an offense requiring registration pursuant to subdivision (c) of Section 290.
- helping a friend hide jewelry that was stolen from a store.
- buying a cell phone while knowing that it was taken from someone else.
- selling “hot” goods on eBay.
You can fight theft offense criminal charges by arguing:
- you had no knowledge that the goods were taken,
- you had innocent intent, and/or
- you did not “receive” the taken items.
A violation of this code section is a wobbler offense under California criminal law. This means that a prosecutor can charge it as either:
- a misdemeanor, or
- a felony.
A misdemeanor conviction is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to one year.
A felony conviction is punishable by custody in state prison for up to three years.
In lieu of jail time, a judge can award either:
Our California criminal defense attorneys will discuss the following in this article:
- 1. When is the receipt of stolen property a crime?
- 2. Are there legal defenses to 496 PC?
- 3. What are the penalties?
- 4. Are there immigration consequences?
- 5. Can I get a conviction expunged?
- 6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
- 7. Are there related offenses?
1. When is the receipt of stolen property a crime?
Many theft offenses focus on the perpetrator who actually takes or steals another person’s property. Penal Code 496 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime knowingly to receive the stolen property. 1
A prosecutor must prove the following to convict you of this offense:
- you bought, received, sold or aided in selling, concealed or withheld property that had been stolen from another, and
- when you did so, you knew that the goods had been stolen or obtained by extortion.2
Questions often arise under this statute on the meaning of:
- stolen and extortion,
- receive, and
- knowledge that goods were stolen
1.1. Stolen and extortion
Property is stolen if it was obtained by:
- any type of theft (such as larceny or embezzlement),
- burglary, per Penal Code 459 PC, or
- robbery, per Penal Code 211 PC.3
Property is obtained by extortion, per Penal Code 518 PC, if:
- you obtained the goods with a person’s consent, and
- that person’s consent was obtained through the use of force or fear.4
To receive property means to take possession and control of it.5
Note that you do not have to be the sole possessor of the items. Two or more people can possess the items at the same time.6
Also note that you can “possess” items without actually:
- holding them, or
- touching them.
The concept of “constructive possession” basically says that you possess goods if you have:
- control over them, or
- the right to control them.7
Example: Susan steals some jewelry from a store. She takes it to her neighbor’s house – Michael and Kim. Susan offers Michael $200 to let her bury the goods in his yard to hide it. He agrees but he never touches the jewelry or holds it. Susan buries the gems.
Here, Michael is guilty of receiving stolen property. While he never “possessed” the jewelry, he had the right to control it since it was in his yard. Kim can even be guilty of the same offense if Michael told her about it. Two people can co-possess goods at the same time.
1.3. Knowledge that property was stolen
You are only guilty under this statute if, when you “received” items, you knew it to be stolen.8
Note that certain categories of business owners can be convicted under this statute even if the prosecutor cannot prove that they actually knew the goods were stolen.
For example, swap meet vendors and people whose primary business is dealing with or collecting merchandise or personal goods can be convicted of receiving stolen property if:
- they acquired the goods and should have had reason to suspect they were stolen, and
- they failed to inquire into whether the goods were actually stolen.9
2. Are there legal defenses to 496 PC?
You can challenge a receipt of stolen property case with various possible defenses.
Three common arguments criminal defense lawyers use are:
- no knowledge,
- innocent intent, and/or
- no receipt of goods.
In any case, the prosecution needs to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt through direct and/or circumstantial evidence. Typical evidence includes surveillance video, eyewitnesses, and serial numbers.
2.1. No knowledge
Recall that you are only guilty under this code section if you knew that the goods involved were in fact stolen. This means it is always a defense to say that you did not have this knowledge.
2.2. Innocent intent
An “innocent intent” defense says that you are innocent under PC 496 if:
- at the time you received the stolen items,
- you intended to return them to the owner or bring them to law enforcement.
Example: Roman owns a car shop. A woman comes to him and tells him she wants to sell him a stolen SUV. Roman is offended and wants to try and bust the woman. He buys the car and then takes it to the police.
Here, Roman is not guilty of receiving stolen items because he had an “innocent intent.”
Note, though, that this defense only applies if you:
- intended to return the items at the time you received them, and
- did not later change your mind.10
2.3. No receipt of property
Recall that you must “receive” stolen items to be guilty under this law. Further, this word carries a specific legal definition. You, therefore, are not guilty of a crime if you did not in fact receive the items.
Perhaps, for example, you did not:
- possess the property, or
- have control over it.
3. What are the penalties?
A violation of Penal Code 496 is charged as a wobbler offense. A wobbler is a crime that a prosecutor can charge as either:
- a misdemeanor, or
- a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:
- misdemeanor (or summary) probation,
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.11
If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by:
- felony (or formal) probation,
- imprisonment in county jail for up to three years, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.12
Note, though, that a violation of this statute is only charged as a misdemeanor if:
- the total value of the property involved in the charge,
- is $950 or less.
It does not matter whether the violation was a first offense or a subsequent offense.13
4. Are there immigration consequences?
A conviction of receiving stolen property will have negative immigration consequences.
An offense under this law is considered a “crime involving moral turpitude.”
This type of crime can result in you being either:
- deported, or
- marked as inadmissible.
5. Can I get a conviction expunged?
If you are convicted of receiving stolen property, you can get an expungement.
This is true provided that you successfully complete probation. Or, if a jail sentence was imposed, you must successfully serve the entire term.
If you violate a probation term, a judge may still award expungement.
Penal Code 1203.4 PC says an expungement releases you from many of the hardships arising out of the conviction.14
6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
A conviction under this statute may hurt your gun rights.
California law prohibits convicted felons from either:
- purchasing a gun,
- owning a gun, or
- possessing a gun.
Remember that a prosecutor may choose to charge receiving stolen property as either:
- a misdemeanor, or
- a felony.
If you are:
- charged with, and convicted of, felony receipt of stolen goods,
- then you will lose your gun rights.
7. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to receiving stolen goods. These are:
- embezzlement – PC 503,
- extortion – PC 518, and
- theft/appropriation of lost property – PC 485.
Judges tend to impose punishments on the harsher end of the sentencing range if you have prior convictions.
7.1. Embezzlement – PC 503
Penal Code 503 PC is the California statute that defines the offense of embezzlement.
This code section makes it a crime to unlawfully take goods that someone has entrusted to you.
The focus with embezzlement is not on receiving goods. This is because the crime requires that “the victim” entrusted items to you.
7.2. Extortion – PC 518
Per Penal Code 518 PC, extortion occurs when you do any of the following:
- use force or threats to compel another person to give you money or other items, or
- use force or threats to compel a public officer to perform an official act.
Extortion is a more aggressive crime than receiving stolen goods. This is because the offense involves using force or threats against another.
7.3. Theft/appropriation of lost property – PC 485
Penal Code 485 PC is California’s law against appropriating (or misappropriating) lost goods.
The law prohibits you from:
- keeping goods that you find
- when there are clues that identify its true owner.
This crime places a burden on you to find the owner of a lost good.
For additional help…
Facing charges in Nevada or Colorado? See our articles on:
- “Nevada ‘Possession of Stolen Property’ Laws (NRS 205.275),” and
- “Theft by Receiving Stolen Property (Colorado 18-4-404 C.R.S.)”
- California Penal Code 496a PC. See also: Williams v. Superior Court (1978) 81 Cal.App.3d 330; People v. Wielograf People v. Reyes (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 975; People v. Zyduck (1969) 270 Cal.App.2d 334; People v. Gatlin (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 31; People v. Scott (1951) 108 Cal.App.2d 231; People v. Kunkin (1973) 9 Cal.3d 245; People v. Candiotto (1960) 183 Cal.App.2d 348; People v. Siegfried (1967) 249 Cal.App.2d 489.
- CALCRIM No. 1750. See also People v. Land (1994) 30 Cal.App.4th 220; People v. Lyons (1958) 50 Cal.2d 245; In re Greg F. (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 466; People v. Moss (1976) 55 Cal.App.3d 179; People v. Rojas (1961) 55 Cal.2d 252. Unlike in some states, receipt of stolen property is not divided into first degree, second degree, third degree, or fourth degree.
- CALCRIM No. 1750.
- See same.
- See same. See also People v. Land, supra; People v. Zyduck (1969) 270 Cal.App.2d 334; and, People v. Gatlin (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 31.
- CALCRIM No. 1750. See also People v. Scott (1951) 108 Cal.App.2d 231.
- CALCRIM No. 1750. See also People v. Gatlin, supra.
- CALCRIM No. 1750.
- California PC 496.
- CALCRIM 751. See also People v. Mendoza (1998) 18 Cal.4th 1114; People v. Atkins (2001) 25 Cal.4th 76; People v. MacArthur (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 275; People v. Ceja (2010) 49 Cal.4th 1; People v. Garza (2005) 35 Cal.4th 866; People v. Speaks (1981) 120 Cal.App.3d 36; see People v. Gory (1946) 28 Cal.2d 450.
- California PC 496. See also California Penal Code 19 PC. See also People v. Jaramillo (1976) 16 Cal.3d 752; People v. Tatum (1962) 209 Cal.App.2d 179.
- California PC 496. See also California Penal Code 1170h PC.
- California PC 496.
- California PC 1203.4.