Theft

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The actus reus of theft is usually defined as an unauthorized taking, keeping or using of another's property which must be accompanied by a mens rea of dishonesty and/or the intent to permanently deprive the owner or the person with rightful possession of that property or its use.

For example, if X goes to a restaurant and, by mistake, takes Y's scarf instead of her own, she has physically deprived Y of the use of the property (which is the actus reus) but the mistake prevents X from forming the mens rea (i.e. because she believes that she is the owner, she is not dishonest and does not intend to deprive the "owner" of it) so no crime has been committed at this point. But if she realises the mistake when she gets home and could return the scarf to Y, she will steal the scarf if she dishonestly keeps it. Note that there may be civil liability for the torts of trespass to chattels or conversion in either eventuality.

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Theft in English law

In English law, theft was codified into a statutory offence in the Theft Act 1968 which defines it as:

The five elements of the offence are defined sequentially in the Act:

  • Section 2 dishonesty;
  • Section 3 "appropriation" which occurs when the defendant wrongfully asserts the rights of ownership over the property. This can be by physical taking, but it will also include many different situations (i.e. a failure to return or omission) in which a person may have lawfully come into possession of the property and then keeps or uses the property in an unauthorised way;
  • Section 4 "property" includes all personalty, i.e. land itself cannot be stolen but anything severed from the land (with the exception of wild flowers) can be stolen, as can intangible property such as a chose in action; however it seems that the term does not extend to all intangible property, as information (Oxford v. Moss) and trade secrets (R v. Absolom, The Times, 14 September 1983) have been held not to fall within the Section 4 definition of property.
  • Section 5 "belonging to another" requires a distinction to be made between ownership, possession and control:
  • Section 6 "with the intent to permanently deprive the other of it" is sufficiently flexible to include situations where the property is later returned. For example, suppose that B, a keen football fan, has bought a ticket for the next home match. T takes the ticket, watches the match and then returns the ticket to B. In this instance, all that T returns is a piece of paper. Its value as a licence to enter the stadium on a particular day has been permanently lost. Hence, T steals the ticket. Similarly, if T takes a valuable antique but later repents and returns the goods, T has committed the actus reus with the mens rea. The fact that T's conscience forces a change of mind is relevant only for sentencing.

The maximum sentence in the Crown Court is seven years (section 7).

If the act of stealing is already complete before another comes into possession of the goods, this may be handling. For alternative charges involving deceptions, see the deception offences and the Theft Act 1978 which may overlap with s1 Theft. For the theft of motor vehicles with or without violence, see robbery, blackmail and TWOC.

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