MISTAKEN BELIEF THAT PROPERTY HAD BEEN ABANDONED PROVIDES DEFENSE TO CRIMINAL CHARGE OF LARCENY
In Commonwealth v. Fuller (March 6, 2017), the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed a jury verdict of guilty in a case in which the defendant was convicted of stealing parts off of a piece of heavy equipment. The defendant testified that he had passed by the property for years, and had always seen the equipment lying on the ground, eventually becoming rusted and overgrown with flora. Near the end of the trial, the defense attorney asked for the judge to instruct the jury regarding the law of abandonment. The judge refused to give the instruction, and the defendant was convicted of larceny over $250 in violation of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266, section 30(1), a felony.
On appeal, the Appeals Court held that the abandonment instruction should have been given to the jury, since a larceny conviction requires an intent to steal, and the defendant would have had no intent to steal if he actually believed the property to have been abandoned.
The Appeals Court cited to Massachusetts precedent for the proposition that “[a]n honest mistake of fact or law is a defense when it negates a required mental element of the crime . . . [s]pecific intent to steal is negated by a finding that the defendant held the honest albeit mistaken belief that he was entitled to the property he took.” The Court also cited the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1952 held that an honest, though mistaken, belief that property was abandoned is a defense to larceny. Morissette v. U.S., 342 U.S. 246, 271 (1952).
In a footnote, the Court also pointed to an SJC case clarifying that a defendant’s mistaken belief need not be objectively reasonable. That is, if the jury finds that the defendant actually believed that the property was abandoned, it should acquit the defendant, even if it also finds that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have believed that the property was abandoned.
This was a Rule 1:28 summary decision, so it is not binding precedent, although it may be cited for persuasive value.
Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan
The Law Offices of Kevin D. Quinlan
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P.O. Box 248
Uxbridge, MA 01569