What is the Doctrine of Recent Possession in a Theft Case?

Theft Crime - Doctrine of Recent Possession

North Carolina recognizes various theft crimes. The most popular include larceny, felony larceny, obtaining property by false pretenses, possession of stolen goods, and shoplifting. North Carolina also recognizes the crimes of breaking and entering, and robbery.

If you have been charged with a theft crime in North Carolina, the prosecutor might attempt to use the doctrine of recent possession to try to find you guilty. The doctrine of recent possession can be somewhat confusing, but it essentially means that a person who is accused of theft can be found guilty if they are caught in recent possession of stolen goods.

In certain criminal cases, including cases of theft, the prosecutor must prove mens rea, or that the defendant acted with an “evil mind.” Sometimes a suspect is caught “red-handed,” in which case the intent to commit a crime is clear. But other times, the prosecution must point to circumstantial evidence to prove mens rea and must ask the jury to infer that a defendant acted with criminal intent.

If a defendant was found in recent possession of stolen property, the doctrine of recent possession can be used to allow the judge or jury to infer that the defendant was the person who stole the property.

The doctrine helps the prosecutor establish the mental element of a theft crime by allowing the judge or jury to infer that the defendant is guilty based on his or her possession of stolen property. For the doctrine of recent possession to apply, the defendant must have been in possession of the stolen goods at a time that is in close proximity to when the alleged theft occurred.

Proving Recent Possession in a North Carolina Theft Case

To successfully apply the doctrine of recent possession in a theft case, the prosecutor must prove all of the following elements, beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. The property was stolen;
  2. The property was found in the exclusive possession of the defendant or was in his or her disposition and control; and
  3. The defendant possessed the property recently after it was stolen.

Identify the Property as Stolen

To successfully apply the doctrine, the owner of the property must be able to positively identify the stolen property. This can be easier when the goods that were stolen are truly unique. But when they are mass-produced and commonly available, it can be difficult for the property owner to state with certainty that the goods that were in possession of the defendant were the same ones that were allegedly stolen.

Property in the Possession of the Defendant

Second, the prosecutor must prove that the property was found in the defendant’s possession. This could be actual possession, where the defendant has the stolen items on his or her person, or constructive possession, such as if the stolen goods were in a locked facility that only the defendant can access.

The Defendant Had Recent Possession of the Property

Finally, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant was in possession of the property recently after it was stolen. There are no firm rules about how close in time to when the crime occurred the defendant must be found in possession of the stolen goods. Determining recency will depend on the unique facts and circumstances of each case. But the general rule is that the time between the theft and the possession of the property by the defendant must be close enough that it is unlikely that the defendant came into possession of the property through honest means.

Limits of the Doctrine of Recent Possession

Proving all of the elements necessary to establish recent possession in a theft case can be difficult, especially when the goods at issue were mass-produced or have no recognizable or identifying characteristics. If the stolen property is of a type that is normally and commonly lawfully exchanged, a relatively short time between the alleged theft and finding the property in the possession of the defendant is necessary. But in cases where the stolen items are unique, the doctrine of recent possession may apply after a longer time between when the goods were reported stolen and when they were found in the defendant’s possession.

The Stowe Law Firm: Serious Representation for Serious Crimes

If you are under investigation or have been charged with a theft crime in North Carolina, experienced and aggressive legal representation is critical. The Stowe Law Firm can help.

North Carolina criminal defense attorney Ryan Stowe has extensive experience representing people who have been accused of crimes in and around Salisbury, North Carolina. He takes pride in being a true advocate for his clients who works hard to make sure they get the best resolution possible.

When you work with Ryan Stowe you will find that he is a caring and compassionate advocate who will do all he can to ensure that you receive justice.

The Stowe Law Firm, PLLC represents people in Rowan County, Mecklenburg County, Davidson County, Cabarrus County, and Stanly County.

We invite you to learn more about the cases we handle, to read reviews from other people we’ve helped, and to get answers to Frequently Asked Questions. Then contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your situation and how we can help.