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Beware of riding in a stolen car

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Image from National Institute of Standards & Technology.

Unfortunately, the state of the law reduces how carefree one may feel being in a car with others. If the car is stopped — or a house searched — and contraband is found on anyone in the car or home, do not be surprised if the police arrest everyone in the car, and if the prosecutor’s office dragnets everyone into a prosecution. If you accept a ride from someone and the car is stolen, do not be surprised if you are arrested along with the driver.

Today, Virginia’s intermediate appellate court explained that on the one hand, merely being a passenger in a vehicle that one knows to be stolen is not enough for a conviction, and showed that being a mere hitchhiker in such a situation might expose one the least to a car theft conviction. Williams v. Virginia, ___ Va. App. ___ (August 3, 2010). However, once the passenger, knowing the car to be stolen, asks the driver to use the car to run an errand beyond just remaining in the car until the driver reaches the driver’s destination, and once the passenger encourages the driver to keep driving (because car theft is an ongoing crime while the driver knowingly drives a stolen crime), that is where the passenger can be convicted of theft. Id.

In Williams, an additional occupant of the car testified to being picked up when his friend Williams was already in the car, seeing a screwdriver on the floor near the driver’s seat (which might have been a theft tool), and being told by Williams that the car was stolen. A neighbor of the theft victim testified to seeing Williams leave the car saying “we haven’t been arrested yet”. The Court of Appeals allowed the trial judge, sitting without a jury, to infer that Williams had asked the driver to pick up his friend, and concluded that doing so when knowing the car was stolen permitted a car theft conviction against Williams.

In the early Nineties as a public defender lawyer, I defended many car theft cases. The police often arrested everyone in the car, and, in addition to theft, sometimes charged them with unauthorized use of a vehicle, which permits guilt even if there is an intent ultimately to return the vehicle to the owner. If my client was a passenger and there was no evidence to show my client knew the car was stolen, that was one thing, but often stolen cars had such noticeable damage as popped ignitions, damaged dashboards, and smashed windows. With all theft cases, there often are a plethora of defenses, including unlawful stops, and failure by the prosecutor to establish that the same car that the police stopped is the one that was stolen from Mr. V, at least where the only description of the car is that it is a red Toyota Corolla, which litter the road.

In any event, where I practice law, theft is an ongoing crime, and includes being in knowing possession of stolen property. Therefore, think twice before taking even a stick of chewing gum from someone you know to be a frequent shoplifter.