Property offences in Queensland
Stealing, although a regular feature of society is in some ways a misunderstood crime with subtle complications. Those who are outside of the law might not have a complete grasp of the various elements that constitute the crime of stealing. In addition to this, often a person may come into possession of property that they believe they are entitled to, only to find that the law says that they have committed an offence. So how do you know whether or not it’s safe to keep something that you’ve been given, or even paid money for?
How is stealing defined in the law?
Stealing is a conscious effort to permanently deprive someone of their property. In simpler terms, stealing is taking something that belongs to someone else, and keeping it without the intention of returning the item. Therefore, you couldn’t accuse your friend of ‘stealing’ if they forgot to return your DVD because your friend probably didn’t have the intention of depriving you of your DVD – they just plain forgot.
Stealing by finding
Following the Brisbane floods of 2011, we had a client who had been charged by the police with stealing. He had been walking in a park in West End and came across a large jetty that had washed up along the shore. Believing that the jetty had been abandoned, he went home, retrieved a saw, returned to the jetty and began cutting it into pieces. His intention was to sell the jetty as scrap metal. He was interrupted by the police, questioned and then charged.
While this was an unusual scenario, much more common examples will involve people finding wallets, mobile phones or handbags which appear to be lost. A person who finds these items, and keeps it, might argue that the owner has lost it and they are therefore lawfully entitled to it. Whether or not they have committed an offence will depend on the circumstances in which the property was found, such as where and when it was found, but more importantly, the item itself.
The law states that when a thing has been lost by the owner and found by a person, the offence of stealing has not been committed if at the time of the finding the person finding the thing does not know who the owner is, and believes, on reasonable grounds, that the owner can not be discovered.
Essentially, the test will be whether or not there is a belief that the owner could be discovered. If a person finds a mobile phone, there will probably be a sim card on it with contact numbers, photos and possibly emails that will lead to the identify of the owner. In addition to that, most modern smartphones, such as iphones, will have unique identifying numbers and GPS trackability. These are all very easy ways of identifying the owner, and so it would be very difficult to argue that the owner couldn’t be located. Therefore, keeping it could lead to being charged with stealing by finding. If, on the other hand, a person finds a $50 note, it would probably be reasonable to assume that the owner can’t be located as there are no unique identifying features on the note. However, the location of the $50 note will still be relevant – if it is on a public footpath with nobody around, then it’s unlikely the owner will be found. If it’s in a person’s house, then the owner might easily be found.
The safest thing to do when finding property that you believe might be abandoned is to hand it in to the police. They will make enquiries to locate the owner and if they are unsuccessful, you may be entitled to the property.
Possessing tainted property
Another very common property offence that we often deal with is the charge of ‘possessing tainted property’. ‘Tainted property’ simply means property that has been obtained by way of an unlawful act, the most common being stealing.
The law in Queensland states that it is an offence to ‘possess or receive property that while having reason to believe that it was tainted property’. This is a good example of a charge that even exemplary people with no criminal histories can get caught up with because the law is not clear.
In determining whether or not a person should have belief that property was tainted property, it is necessary to consider many factors: who it was purchased from, the condition of the item, whether or not a receipt is provided, where it was offered for purchase, and probably most importantly, the price paid for the item. Take the example of a person being approached by a stranger in the street and offered to purchase an iphone for $50. The phone is second hand, without a box or charger and no receipt is provided. In addition to this, most people will know that iphones retail for far more than $50 – usually upwards of $500. You would expect that a reasonable person in this situation, given the phone’s condition, how it was offered for sale and the price, would have reason to believe that the phone was stolen property.
We have in the past acted for a man who purchased an item at the Rocklea flea market and was still charged by the police. The item that he purchased was a commercial grade key cutter, for which he paid $250 and which turned out to be stolen. The problem that this man faced, even though he purchased it in good faith, was that these key cutters were usually worth in the thousands. The $250 sale price was far too low and the police alleged that he should have known that it was stolen.
Therefore, when coming into possession of property a person should always be very careful, even if they paid money for it. Using their judgment, if the circumstances in which they came to be in possession of the property were suspicious, then they should avoid keeping or buying the property. Ordinary people aren’t expected to be detectives and attempt to find out exactly where the item came from, but at the same time they aren’t allowed to close their eyes and not make any enquiries.
All information contained within this article should be considered as general advice only. If you require further information please contact Cridland & Hua Lawyers.