Tampa, Dealing in Stolen Property vs. Grand Theft

When one first hears about the crime of Dealing in Stolen Property, they might envision someone selling car stereos out of the back of a truck. Indeed that may be DSP, yet most of the cases we see involve a person taking an item to a pawnshop. These cases are much easier to prove since they often follow a burglary. So if items are missing from a home, police often check the nearest pawn shops for the items – more often than not, the items are there – and better yet for the police – whoever pawned the items left all their identifying information with the pawn broker. Clearly a much easier crime to solve.

Can you be convicted of both grand theft and dealing in stolen property? Like all things legal – it depends. The law says that you can be charged with both, but not convicted of both – IF BOTH CRIMES ARISE OUT OF A SINGLE COURSE OF CONDUCT. “A single course of conduct” is impossible to explain in this blog, and really depends on the facts of any given situation.

Interestingly, if you can be charged with both crimes – but not convicted – who gets to decide? Since grand theft is usually a third degree felony (up to 5 yrs in prison) and dealing in stolen property is usually a second degree felony (up to 15 years) should the “rule of lenity” apply? That is, shouldn’t you get the lesser sentence? According to most courts in Florida, NO.

The Second District Court of Appeal, recently sent this question to the Supreme Court. Since the legislature in the once again great wisdom never clarified that part, the Supreme Court now gets to decide. In a case out of Tampa, Florida – Melvin Williams went to trial on both grand theft and dealing in stolen property (and a few other charges which aren’t relevant to this). He was convicted by the jury of both the grand theft and the DSP, and the judge dismissed the grand theft, but convicted him of the DSP. He appealed his case, saying that the jury should have been instructed that they couldn’t convict him on both as the statute says. However, there’s no standard jury instruction on this, and therefore no explanation to the jury of how to decide which crime to convict. Arbitrary? So the trial judge in this case, picked the greater crime and dismissed the lesser.

The quickest fix to this arbitrary law seems to be to write a jury instruction to clarify things for the jury to choose. Who gets to write these? The Supreme Court. There’s a committee of lawyers that makes the recommendations on jury instructions to the Supreme Court. Since the legislature seems to be too concerned about baggy pants in school – I guess it’s up to the lawyers to fix it. Scary huh?

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