MERE POSSESSION OF A STOLEN HANDGUN IS INSUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT CONVICTION FOR RECEIVING STOLEN PROPERTY

The Pa. Superior Court has vacated Defendant’s conviction of Receiving Stolen Property in the case of Commonwealth v. Robinson, No. 912 MDA 2014 (November 19, 2015), finding the evidence was insufficient to establish that Defendant knew, or had reason to know, that the firearm in his possession was stolen.

FACTS

Police responded to a domestic dispute and found Defendant to be in possession of a stolen handgun. The handgun in Defendant’s possession was located in an unremarkable location (his coat pocket) and it had not been altered in any way to conceal its stolen status, as the manufacturer’s serial number remained plainly visible. Defendant’s conduct at the time of arrest likewise provided no indicia of guilty knowledge, as he merely stared “stone-faced” in response to the arresting officer’s inquiries, and he did not offer any false explanation for his possession of the handgun or make any effort to flee apprehension.

Police subsequently learned that Defendant did not possess a permit to carry a firearm and identified Schoenberger as the probable owner of the handgun. Schoenberger indicated that he did not know Defendant and had not given him the handgun. Schoenberger had last seen the handgun in July 2010, and did not know it was missing until May 2013 when he was contacted by police after Defendant’s arrest.

The Commonwealth acknowledged that there was no direct proof that Defendant knew for a fact that the handgun was stolen. Instead, the Commonwealth contended that it introduced sufficient evidence to prove that Defendant believed the firearm was probably stolen.

After a jury convicted him of Receiving Stolen Property (“RSP”) and other offenses, Defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction of RSP. The Superior Court ultimately granted en banc review for further consideration of the sufficiency of the evidence for the RSP conviction.

ISSUE

Whether the Commonwealth presented sufficient evidence at trial to establish that Defendant knew, or had reason to know, that the firearm in his possession was stolen?

HOLDING

The Commonwealth proved only that Defendant possessed a stolen handgun. The Commonwealth did not introduce any evidence that would support a jury inference, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Defendant knew or had reason to believe that the handgun was stolen.

Judgment of sentence was vacated on the conviction of RSP and the case was remanded for resentencing on the remaining charges.

REASONING

The Court identified the elements of the crime of RSP to be: (1) intentionally acquiring possession of the movable property of another; (2) with knowledge or belief that it was probably stolen; and (3) the intent to deprive permanently. Defendant contested the sufficiency of the evidence only with respect to the second element of the crime, sometimes referred to as “guilty knowledge” of the crime. In the absence of any evidence to support the second element of the crime of receiving stolen property, the conviction must be reversed.

The Commonwealth had the burden to establish either that Defendant knew the firearm in question was stolen, or believed that it had probably been stolen. A person “knows” that goods are stolen if he is “aware” of that fact. The guilty knowledge required here (like all culpable mental states) may also be inferred from circumstantial evidence.

Mere possession of stolen property, without more, is not sufficient circumstantial evidence to support an inference of guilty knowledge. However, a permissible inference of guilty knowledge may be drawn from the unexplained possession of recently stolen goods without infringing on an accused’s right of due process or his right against self-incrimination. This, in turn, may require a defendant to offer an alternative explanation for his possession of the stolen item. In the absence of an explanation, the jury may infer guilty knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt based upon the Commonwealth’s evidence. Even if the accused offers an explanation, the jury may nevertheless find it unsatisfactory and reach a finding of guilty knowledge if the theft was recently committed.

Evidence that the theft was recently committed is not the only basis for an inference of guilty knowledge. Circumstantial evidence of guilty knowledge may also include the place or manner of possession, alterations to the property indicative of theft, the defendant’s conduct or statements at the time of arrest (including attempts to flee apprehension), a false explanation for the possession, the location of the theft in comparison to where the defendant gained possession, the value of the property compared to the price paid for it, or any other evidence connecting the defendant to the crime.

In the case at hand, the Commonwealth presented no evidence that would support an inference of guilty knowledge. No evidence whatsoever was introduced at trial regarding how, when, or where Defendant acquired the handgun, or from whom. Instead, the Commonwealth proved only that Defendant possessed stolen property, which, alone, is not sufficient to prove guilty knowledge.

Because the Commonwealth did not establish the theft was recently committed and failed to provide any other circumstantial evidence of guilty knowledge, the Defendant had no obligation to offer any explanation for his possession of the handgun.

As a final note, the Superior Court also rejected the Commonwealth’s claims that the Defendant’s lack of a license to carry the weapon or his failure to “register his ownership” the handgun at issue were circumstantial evidence of his guilty knowledge.

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-E02008-15o%20-%201024427095717893.pdf?cb=1

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