Proof of Grand Theft
“Faith is an island in the setting sun
But proof, yes
Proof is the bottom line for everyone.”
Paul Simon, Proof
Can you prove how much pain you’re in? Sure, the doctor can ask you to select one of seven smiley faces, or frowny faces, depending upon your level of pain. But, how can you prove to the doctor that your level of pain is a level 5 frowny face, versus a level 7 frowny face?
How do you prove you love someone, versus just liking them? As Gordon Gano sings, what do I have to do, to prove my love to you?
Problems of proof have plagued criminal cases for decades. Today, we’re going to take a look at four felony grand theft convictions and ask ourselves: did they have enough proof?
In J.A.H. v. State, 2019 Fla. App. LEXIS 10027 (Fla. 2d DCA 2019), J.A.H. was convicted of grand theft auto, plus three counts of burglary of a conveyance.
Here’s what happened: three vehicles were broken into, wallets and purses were stolen. That’s where the three burglary of a conveyance convictions came from. Now, I’m not sure why folks (3) would leave their purse or wallet in the car, that seems a bit old school, but it happened in this case. Go figure. As for the grand theft auto, a 2012 Nissan Altima was also stolen.
Four days after the grand theft auto, an officer spotted the Altima driving around town. Smartly, the officer first called a helicopter to help, and to no one’s surprise the minute he turned his flashers on–the Altima took off.
When the Altima came to a stop–five individuals exited the car and ran. The cops were ready for this, and all five kids were immediately apprehended, but, the police were unable to determine who was driving the car. (This will be important later…)
Not only was the car stolen, but inside the car, the police discovered a purse, wallet, watch, and sneakers that did not belong to the owner of the Altima. These items were part of some other car burglaries in the area, all of which happened within only a few hours.
Now, with everyone on Earth owning a Ring doorbell, it should come as no surprise that one of the car owners had video surveillance of the entire burglary from her surveillance camera. The video showed five individuals breaking into her car, similar to the five individuals arrested after fleeing the Altima. But, the video was not clear, and the ethnicity of the burglars could not be determined by the video.
Our juvenile defendant, J.A.H., was one of the five caught fleeing from the stolen car. He admitted to the cops that he knew the car was stolen, but he didn’t know who stole it or when, nor could he remember where he was sitting when the car was stopped.
J.A.H. was convicted of four felonies. He was convicted of stealing the Altima and he was convicted of breaking into three cars (burglary of a conveyance).
The question is, how much proof does it take to convict someone of these crimes? Let’s boil down the facts that the prosecutors presented in order to convict J.A.H. of burglary and grand theft auto:
(1) J.A.H. was in a stolen car with four other people.
(2) J.A.H. knew the car was stolen (he admitted this to the police).
(3) J.A.H. fled the car and was caught running away when the cops pulled the car over.
(4) J.A.H. was in a car full of stolen goods.
(5) The stolen goods were taken only a couple of hours before J.A.H. was caught fleeing from the stolen car containing stolen goods.
(6) J.A.H. was charged with burglarizing each of the cars from which these items were recently stolen.
(7) There was no fingerprint evidence, or similar evidence linking J.A.H. to the stolen items, or burglarized vehicles, other than the facts above.
Back to our original question: Did the State have enough proof of grand theft auto?
No. Florida law is clear on this issue–mere presence in a vehicle that you know is stolen is not proof that you stole the vehicle. A.D.P. v. State, 223 So. 3d 428 (Fla. 2d DCA 2017).
The most important fact missing here is “dominion and control over the vehicle.” If the prosecutors could prove that J.A.H. was driving a stolen vehicle and he knew it was stolen, that would have been enough proof to convict. (“When the State fails to show that the accused exercised dominion and control over the vehicle, such as when a person is merely a passenger, a motor vehicle theft has not been established”, A.D.P. at 431).
Ok. What about J.A.H.’s three burglary convictions? Was there enough proof? Well, let’s dig deeper. First, where was J.A.H. when the cars were burglarized?
We don’t know.
Second, did J.A.H. even know that there were stolen wallets and purses in the car?
We don’t know.
Here’s what the law says: you cannot convict J.A.H. of stealing items “based on the presence of the stolen property because J.A.H. was not the sole occupant of the vehicle and the State did not establish that J.A.H. exercised control over the property.” J.A.H. at 6. In other words, if J.A.H.’s fingerprints were on the stolen goods, they may have moved a bit closer to having “proof” he exercised control over the stolen goods. As it stands now, they don’t know who had control over the items.
Third, what if the driveway video capturing the burglary actually showed that J.A.H. was present for the burglary, is that enough to convict him?
No. Florida law states that “mere knowledge that an offense is being committed and mere presence at the scene of the crime is insufficient to establish participation in the offense.” Garcia v. State, 899 So. 2d 447, 450 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005).
And there you have it. A defendant arrested four felonies–convicted of four felonies–and the State didn’t even have proof of one single felony. All four convictions were overturned. No proof.