Law enforcement has broad discretion to enforce the laws. Still, it’s sometimes surprising to see how far a case can proceed before a court overturns a conviction. In fact, the defendant in a recent Florida grand theft decision was arguably doing his job as a repo man when he was charged with grand theft auto and theft of property. It wasn’t until the appeals court heard his case, after a conviction, that he was cleared of the crimes.The defendant was formerly a bail bond agent, who had his license revoked. He started working with another agent to provide bond premium financing. One individual sought his services for a loan and provided the title to her vehicle as security. After she defaulted on the loan, the defendant re-possessed her vehicle. The defendant and his co-worker notified the police that the re-possession occurred as a result of delinquent loan payments. The car owner had several personal belongings in the car. She reported to the police that her car and its contents had been stolen. The defendant was arrested and charged with grand theft auto and theft of property. His defense attorney moved for judgment of acquittal on all of the charges because the defendant lacked the requisite intent for grand theft auto, and the theft charge would be a double jeopardy violation. The trial court denied the motion.
The crime of theft is a specific intent offense. Under Florida law, specific intent requires that the prosecution show that the defendant was aware that he or she was unlawfully taking another party’s property. In contrast, Florida courts have held that a person who takes possession of another party’s property with the good-faith belief that he or she has a right to the property lacks the specific intent to commit theft.
The court noted that the defendant re-possessed the vehicle in broad daylight and contacted police to report that he re-possessed the vehicle as a result of non-payment on the loan. The court rejected a statement made by the defendant that he would not return the vehicle even if its owner paid the amount past due. Reliance on that statement was improper because the analysis should fixate on the defendant’s intent at the time the dispossession occurred. The court could only identify one possible conclusion as to the defendant’s intent: he took it as collateral for the unpaid loan. The court also ruled that the theft charge be dropped because it constituted a double jeopardy violation. As a result, the appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision with an order to vacate the convictions for grand theft auto and theft of property.