Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Larceny Conviction Because Defendant May Have Honestly, But Mistakenly, Believed Property Was Abandoned

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the larceny conviction of a Pittsfield man, because the defendant may have honestly, but incorrectly, believed that the property he took was abandoned.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Liebenow.

The defendant was in the business of selling scrap metal.  On July 27, 2010, he was driving around Pittsfield looking for scrap metal that he would collect and later sell.  He drove into a private cul-de-sac where a large condominium complex was being constructed.  Because the construction was ongoing, trucks, a trailer, and equipment were present.  At the bottom of the cul-de-sac, where there was no construction occurring, workers had stacked steel pipes and steel plates which they intended to use on other projects.

One of the developer’s employees watched the defendant drive to the bottom of the cul-de-sac and appear to put some of the steel pipes and plates in the back of the SUV he was driving.  The employee stopped the defendant to ask what he was doing and the defendant said he was picking up some junk steel.  He then drove away.  The employee recorded the defendant’s license plate number and called the police.  A police officer located the defendant at a junkyard that purchased scrap metal.  The defendant admitted that he had taken the steel.  He was charged with larceny under $250.

The defendant gave up his right to have a jury trial and instead agreed to allow a judge decide if he was guilty or not guilty.  The defendant testified at trial that he believed the steel he had taken had been abandoned by the construction crews.  He said people had previously dumped trash in the area where he took the steel.  He made no effort to conceal the fact that he was taking the steel and he took it during daylight hours.  Nevertheless, the judge found the defendant guilty of larceny, ruling that the defendant’s honest belief regarding whether the steel was abandoned was irrelevant.

Larceny is the (1) taking and carrying away of property, (2) belonging to someone else, (3) with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.  Because larceny is a “specific intent” crime, the Commonwealth must prove that the defendant knew the property was owned or possessed by someone else at the time he took it.  A defendant’s honest, but mistaken, belief that he was entitled to the property negates the specific intent element.  The Supreme Judicial Court said that there has been recent confusion on this issue because of language in an Appeals Court case that said the defendant must have honestly “and reasonably” believed that he was entitled to the property.  Such language suggested that a judge or jury should apply an objective “reasonableness” standard to determine if a defendant was acting lawfully (instead of simply considering the defendant’s subjective state of mind).  The Supreme Judicial Court said this analysis was erroneous (and so, too, was the judge’s verdict in this case) because if the defendant subjectively believed he was entitled to the property (even if his subjective belief was unreasonable), he was entitled to an acquittal as he did not specifically intend to steal.  Accordingly, the SJC reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the district court.