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Houston Theft Crimes Defense Attorney

Defense Against Theft Crime Charges in Houston, TX

Theft crimes are among the most frequently charged crimes. The FBI's crime clock, compiled from state and federal crime data, shows that a property crime occurs in the U.S. every four seconds. That's six times as often as the rate of violent crimes. Theft crimes are by far the most frequent property crimes. A theft occurs in the U.S. about every six seconds. Burglaries, another form of theft crime, occur about every twenty-three seconds, and vehicle theft every forty-one seconds. That's a vast number of U.S. theft crimes, making detection, punishment, and deterrence of theft a high national law enforcement priority.

Texans Report Many Theft Crimes

Theft crimes are just as prevalent in Texas as in other states. Statistics for 2019, the most recent data available as of this writing, show 496,279 reported larceny thefts in Texas at a loss of nearly $806 million. Texans reported an additional 112,405 burglaries at a loss of over $670 million. Motor vehicle theft added another 76,687 theft crimes at a loss of about an additional $1.28 billion. That's about $2.75 billion in Texas theft losses in a single year. Texas theft crimes are a significant public policy issue.

Texas Larceny Theft Crime

To get an even better idea of why police and prosecutors prioritize catching those who commit theft crimes, look a little more deeply at the frequency and cost of the main forms of theft. First, consider the primary form of theft known as larceny theft. Statistics show that 2019's 496,279 Texas larceny thefts averaged $1,624 in value for a total Texas larceny-theft loss of $805,938,632. About one in every 50 Texans suffered a 2019 larceny-theft loss. Texas authorities cleared, or charged, about 14% of all Texas larceny thefts. Clearance rates show that persons aged 20 to 29 committed more Texas larceny thefts than other age groups, followed closely by persons aged 30 to 39 and then teenagers. The most significant number of larceny thefts occurred from motor vehicles, followed by shoplifting. Theft of vehicle parts, bicycles, purse snatching, and pickpockets each represented only a small fraction of the total number of Texas larceny thefts. Police know the enormous number of larceny thefts and their high cost to Texans.

Texas Burglary Crime

Burglaries, which involve theft from within a building, are the next form of theft for which Texas keeps detailed statistics. Those statistics show that 2019's 112,405 Texas burglaries averaged $5,967 in value for a total Texas burglary loss of $670,754,764. About one in every 250 Texans suffered a 2019 burglary. Texas authorities cleared, or charged, only 8.5% of all Texas burglaries. Clearance rates show that teenagers committed by far the greatest number of Texas burglaries. That number falls as the cohort gets older. More burglaries occurred at residences during daytime than at residences at night or non-residences day or night. Daytime residence burglaries accounted for about $400 million of the total $670 million 2019 burglary loss. Police and prosecutors are well aware that breaking and entering to steal from buildings is a serious issue Texans face.

Texas Robbery Crime

Statistics show that 2019's 28,854 Texas robberies averaged $4,409 in lost property value, for a total Texas robbery loss of $127,157,879. About one in every one thousand Texans suffered a 2019 robbery. Texas authorities cleared, or charged, 18.4% of all Texas robberies. Clearance rates show that teenagers committed by far the greatest number of Texas robberies. That number falls as the cohort gets older. Slightly more than half of Texas robberies involved the use of a firearm. About thirty percent involved strong-arm tactics, while about seven percent used a knife and ten percent used some other weapon. Robberies occurred in large numbers and percentages in commercial establishments, convenience stores and gas stations, residences, and on the highways. Texans face far fewer robberies than larceny thefts and burglaries, but police and prosecutors know that robberies still happen.

Texas Motor Vehicle Theft Crime

Statistics show that 2019's 76,687 Texas motor vehicle thefts averaged $16,696 in value for a total Texas motor vehicle theft loss of $1,280,352,206. About one in every 4,000 Texans suffered a 2019 motor vehicle theft. Texas authorities cleared, or charged, about 11% of all Texas motor vehicle thefts. About 64% of stolen Texas vehicles were cars, while about 30% were trucks or buses. Texans also lost snowmobiles, motorcycles, scooters, trail bikes, mopeds, and golf carts to vehicle theft. Clearance rates show that teenagers, persons aged 20 to 29, and persons aged 30 to 39 were about equally likely to be the vehicle thief. About 73% of recovered vehicles were stolen locally and recovered locally, while the rest were stolen locally but recovered elsewhere. Vehicle theft is a significant risk in Texas, as elsewhere.

Texas Prioritizes Anti-Theft Initiatives

Given the huge numbers and cost of Texas theft crimes, Texas police and prosecutors place a high priority on reducing the incidence of theft by catching, charging, convicting, and punishing those who commit theft crimes. For example, the Texas legislature long ago established the Texas Theft Prevention Authority, the name of which changed in 2019 to the Texas Motor Vehicle Crime Prevention Authority. Police departments in Houston and other Texas cities form Auto Theft Divisions to coordinate anti-theft initiatives with the Motor Vehicle Crime Prevention Authority and vehicle insurers. Texas police and prosecutors pay serious attention to theft crimes, especially vehicle theft.

Theft Prosecutions Are Uncertain

As much attention as Texas police and prosecutors give to theft crimes, they don't always get it right. Theft prosecutions must generally connect the property with the person while also proving the person's criminal intent. A lot can go wrong in making those connections. Police misidentify who took, carried away, and controlled the property, accusing innocent persons. Police also misidentify the property and its ownership. Prosecutors misconstrue innocent actions and anomalous circumstances as evidence of criminal intent, trying to paint a good actor as bad. Innocent bystanders, household members, co-workers, and friends get wrongly accused of theft crimes that they did not commit. Clearance rates for theft crimes average around just ten percent. That figure means that about ninety percent of theft crimes go uncharged. No wonder: making all the necessary connections to prove a theft crime can be far more uncertain than proving violent crimes. A theft charge doesn't mean the defendant actually did the crime.

Skilled Counsel Matters in Theft Crime Defense

Because theft prosecutions are so uncertain, Texas Board Certified criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy can make a big difference in a charge's outcome. Attorney Murphy's premier skills, outstanding reputation, and extensive experience may help you with a winning defense. In the case of some crimes, especially violent crimes against the person, the bigger question has to do with the level of the charge and the harshness of the crime's sentence. The evidence may show that the defendant committed some crime, leaving only the question of the crime's level and punishment. A good defense lawyer can still make a difference in the conviction level and sentence. But in theft crimes, the question can more often be whether the defendant committed any crime at all. In those cases, premier criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy's representation may make all the difference. You may beat all theft charges with attorney Murphy's aggressive reputation.

Different Forms of Theft Crimes

If you or someone you love faces a theft charge, then recognize that prosecutors can charge theft in several different forms. The law generally recognizes more forms of theft crime than you may think, at least ten such theft crimes depending on how you count them. Although Texas has formally consolidated most of the different forms (discussed below), the forms remain important. The penalties for each form may vary depending on the property value, who commits the crime, who is the crime's victim, and the crime's other circumstances. Theft crimes can include:

  • Ordinary larceny such as shoplifting;
  • Burglary involving breaking and entering to steal;
  • Robbery involving the use of force or threat;
  • Embezzlement involving taking property over which one has control;
  • Extortion using coercion or duress;
  • Receiving or concealing stolen property;
  • Writing bad checks, also known as uttering and publishing;
  • Service theft, such as stealing cable television service;
  • Theft of trade secrets or other intellectual property; and
  • Tampering with property identification numbers.

Texas's Consolidation of Theft Offenses

Although theft crimes come in many forms, and the forms can make a difference to the elements, proofs, and penalties, Texas consolidates theft crimes under a single statute. Texas Penal Code §31.02 brings most Texas theft crimes under the statute that follows it, Texas Penal Code §31.03. If you or someone you love faces a Texas theft charge, then know this Texas statute under which the prosecution will likely proceed. Texas Penal Code §31.02, titled "Consolidation of Theft Offenses," states in full:

Theft as defined in Section 31.03 constitutes a single offense superseding the separate offenses previously known as theft, theft by false pretext, conversion by a bailee, theft from the person, shoplifting, acquisition of property by threat, swindling, swindling by worthless check, embezzlement, extortion, receiving or concealing embezzled property, and receiving or concealing stolen property.

Texas's Basic Definition of Theft

The statute that anyone facing a Texas theft charge should know is Texas Penal Code §31.03. That statute defines the basic Texas theft offense. Because Texas consolidates theft offenses into this one statute, the statute is long and complex. It must provide for the different treatment of many different forms and levels of theft offenses. The statute's basic definition, though, is straightforward and clear. Subsection (a) of Texas Penal Code §31.03 defines theft this way: "A person commits an offense if he unlawfully appropriates property with intent to deprive the owner of property." For theft crimes, then, Texas requires proof of the elements of (1) unlawful (2) appropriation with (3) the intent to deprive.

Common law definitions of theft require that the person commit a trespassory taking and carrying away of the property. Texas law simply calls it to "appropriate" the property. Theft is stealing. The idea is that the person must remove the property from the owner's possession, intending to keep the property from its owner. Know this definition and its elements, and you will understand what evidence the police seek and the prosecution must present for a theft conviction.

Further Statutory Definition of Theft

As simple as these theft elements seem, they still require further statutory definition. The first element that the Texas statute on theft further defines is the unlawfulness element. Because Texas Penal Code §31.03 states that the appropriation must be "unlawful," the statute proceeds to define unlawfulness. In fact, the statute gives unlawfulness two main definitions. Subsection (b) of Texas Penal Code §31.03 states that the property's appropriation is unlawful if taken without the owner's consent. The same subsection adds that appropriation is also unlawful if the person who appropriates the property knows someone else stole the property. That's how Texas's basic theft definition covers the traditional receiving stolen property form of the theft crime.

Prosecutors can prove theft in two ways: by showing appropriation from the owner without consent, or appropriation by holding the property while knowing someone else stole the property. Texas Penal Code §31.01 also further defines what it means to appropriate another's property, either:

  • To bring about a transfer or purported transfer of title to or other nonpossessory interest in property, whether to the actor or another; or
  • To acquire or otherwise exercise control over property other than real property.

Proving Guilty Knowledge and Intent

When a Texas prosecutor charges a theft crime, the hardest element to prove can be that the person who took the property did so knowing it belonged to someone else and intending to deprive that owner of the property. Knowledge and intent can be hard to prove, because the defendant can easily deny them. The prosecutor must typically use circumstantial evidence to convince a jury what was in the defendant's mind at the time the defendant took the property.

Texas Penal Code §31.03 elaborates how prosecutors may prove that the person appropriating the property knew it belonged to another and intended to deprive the owner of it. The statute's subsection (c) states that the prosecutor may use evidence that the defendant previously participated in recent similar transactions. The admissibility of evidence of other thefts gives the prosecution a big advantage. The same statutory subsection (c) also permits the prosecutor to prove the defendant's knowledge and intent through an accomplice's uncorroborated testimony. These opportunities together give the prosecution a big leg up on proving the harder element of theft, which is the defendant's subjective state of mind to steal and deprive.

Proving Intent to Deprive

Texas Penal Code §31.01 also elaborates on what it means for the defendant to intend to "deprive" the owner of the property. People can take the property of others without intending to deprive the other person of their property. They may, for instance, just borrow it for a few minutes or hours, expecting to return it before the owner notices it missing. Or they may just move the property a little ways, expecting the owner to readily discover it. True thieves, those who steal intending to deprive but get caught doing so, may claim that they had no intent to deprive. Innocent persons wrongly accused of theft may also need to prove that they had no intent to deprive.

Texas Penal Code §31.01 thus further defines what it means to deprive the owner of the property. Under the statute, to deprive means:

  • To withhold property from the owner permanently or for so extended a period of time that a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property is lost to the owner;
  • To restore property only upon payment of reward or other compensation; or
  • To dispose of property in a manner that makes recovery of the property by the owner unlikely.

Proving Consent

When prosecutors charge a defendant with theft, the defendant may defend the charge by claiming the owner's consent. Consent is a common defense to several Texas crimes. Consent sounds simple. If the owner gives permission to take the property, then the owner has consented. Yet, consent can become a significant issue in theft cases.

Texas Penal Code §31.01 thus further defines what it means for the owner to have consented. The statute first acknowledges that the person taking the property may gain consent not just from the owner but also from someone the law authorizes to act for the owner. The statute then asserts that consent is not effective when:

  • Induced by deception or coercion;
  • Given by someone the actor knows has no legal authority to speak for the owner;
  • Given by a person who because of youth, mental defect, or intoxication the actor knows is unable to give reasonable consent; or
  • Given by a person who because of advanced age the actor knows has diminished capacity to make sound decisions about property.

Theft and Pawn Shops or Secondhand Stores

Although Texas Penal Code §31.03 consolidates theft crimes under a single definition, it also addresses different forms of theft. One of those traditional forms is the receiving stolen property form. To discourage theft, law enforcement must make it harder for the thief to sell or convey (known as fencing) the stolen property for profit. A person who receives stolen property, knowing the property is stolen, is known colloquially as a fence. Pawnshops and secondhand stores that buy goods (not donated goods—thieves don't donate) can be a place where a thief would fence stolen goods. Online marketplaces, where people list secondhand goods for sale, are the modern equivalent.

Texas Penal Code §31.03 addresses these concerns by putting the burden on the person who is in the business of buying and selling secondhand goods or loaning money against those goods. The statute presumes that the person knew the property was stolen unless the person:

  • Records the name, address, and physical description or identification number of the seller;
  • Records a complete description of the property, including the serial number, if reasonably available, or other identifying characteristics; and
  • Obtains a signed warranty from the seller that the seller has the right to possess the property.

Theft and Used Vehicle Sales

Texas's theft statute reflects the same legislative concern over the theft and resale, or fencing, of used motor vehicles. To discourage vehicle theft, the law must discourage receiving and selling stolen vehicles. Texas Penal Code §31.03(c)(6) holds responsible for theft, those who resell, scrap, repair, rebuild, demolish, or otherwise salvage used motor vehicles when they do not follow the statutory requirements. The statute presumes that the actor knows the vehicle was previously stolen unless the actor:

  • Maintains an inventory of each motor vehicle component part purchased by or delivered to the actor, including the date of purchase or delivery, the name, age, address, sex, and driver's license number of the seller or person making the delivery, the license plate number of the motor vehicle in which the part was delivered, a complete description of the part, and the vehicle identification number of the motor vehicle from which the part was removed;
  • Obtains a certificate of authority, sales receipt, transfer document, or certificate of title showing that the motor vehicle is not subject to a lien or that all recorded liens on the motor vehicle have been released; and
  • Immediately removes, secures, and records in an inventory any unexpired license plate from the motor vehicle, including for each plate the license plate number and the make, motor number, and vehicle identification number of the motor vehicle from which the plate was removed.

Texas Penal Code §31.03(c)(7) further requires any person buying or receiving a used motor vehicle to report to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles anyone who delivers such a vehicle without a properly executed title. Once again, the statute presumes the buyer of an untitled vehicle to know of the vehicle's theft, and therefore to be responsible for it, unless the buyer does the required reporting. Texas doesn't want people dealing in stolen vehicles. Prosecutors have remarkable powers to charge theft crimes against anyone dealing in stolen vehicles. The lesson? Don't deal with people who act like thieves. And if you face a theft charge because you did deal with thieves, then retain premier Texas criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy for your necessary defense.

Service Theft

Texas law criminalizes the theft not just of personal property like jewelry, vehicles, and cash but also of services like cable, hotel, or restaurant service. Texas Penal Code §31.04 provides that a person can commit service theft in any of the following ways:

  • The defendant intentionally or knowingly secures the service by deception, threat, or false token;
  • The defendant intentionally or knowingly diverts another's services to the defendant's own benefit or to the benefit of another not entitled to the services;
  • The defendant holds rented property beyond the rental's expiration without consent, depriving the owner of further rentals; or
  • The defendant intentionally or knowingly secures the service by agreeing to pay but then fails to pay in full after receiving payment demand.

Service theft can be difficult to define and to avoid or detect. Texas Penal Code §31.04(b) thus states certain presumptions, making its occurrence more clear and proof easier. Those presumptions give prosecutors distinct advantages in proving a service theft charge. The statute presumes the defendant intended to avoid paying for the service if:

  • The defendant absconded without paying for the service or expressly refused to pay when payment is ordinarily made, as at hotels, campgrounds, recreational vehicle parks, restaurants, and comparable establishments;
  • The defendant failed to pay within ten days after payment demand;
  • The defendant returned rented property late and failed to pay the late charge within ten days after payment demand; or
  • The defendant failed to return rented property valued under $2,500 within five days after return demand, or valued between $2,500 and $10,000 within three days after return demand, or valued over $10,000 within two days after return demand.

Trade Secret Theft

Texas law also prohibits trade secret theft. Businesses survive and thrive by their ability to develop and protect intellectual property. Theft of intellectual property is a serious business risk and concern. Businesses tend to address trade secret theft through civil litigation rather than pursuing criminal charges. Prosecutions of trade secret theft can be extremely technical and challenging. But prosecutions do happen.

Texas Penal Code §31.05(a)(4) defines a trade secret as "any scientific or technical information, design, process, procedure, formula, or improvement that has value and that the owner has taken measures to prevent from becoming available to persons other than those selected by the owner to have access for limited purposes." Texas Penal Code §31.05(b) then defines the trade secret theft offense as when a person knowingly steals a trade secret, copies an article representing a trade secret, or shares a trade secret without the owner's consent. Trade secret litigation can be high-stakes litigation. Trade secret theft is also a serious offense. Texas Penal Code §31.05(c) makes it a third-degree felony.

Bad Checks as Theft

Texas law also criminalizes writing bad checks as another form of theft. Other states may prosecute bad checks under forgery or uttering and publishing crimes. Texas Penal Code §31.06 treats writing a bad check as theft when the one writing the check had no account at the bank on which the writer drew the check. The same statute treats writing a check without sufficient funds as theft, if the one writing the check had an account at the bank, but the account lacked the necessary funds to cover the check. The check's writer must make good on the check within ten days of demand, or the statute presumes that the writer was committing a theft. You can accidentally write a bad check in Texas without committing theft, but you'd better be ready to make good on the check.

Theft Sting Operations

Texas law enforcement officials conduct sting operations to discourage and defeat criminal enterprises engaged in the theft and resale of stolen goods. They do so with the backing of Texas's theft statute. Subsection (d) of Texas Penal Code §31.03 provides that the defendant has no defense to a theft charge, simply because the police deceived the defendant in an undercover operation. The statute specifically authorizes the police to provide a facility in which to commit the theft offense and to solicit the defendant to commit the crime. The solicitation may be such as to "encourage a person predisposed to commit the offense to actually commit the offense" but must not "encourage a person not predisposed to commit the offense to actually commit the offense." This last part of subsection (d) provides statutory authority for the defendant's entrapment defense. If you face a charge from a sting operation, retain premier criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy to pursue an entrapment defense.

Theft Penalties

Theft penalties can be severe, indeed up to life in prison. If you face a theft charge, then retain Texas criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy for an aggressive defense. Know the potential sentence and treat your defense with the seriousness it deserves.

Texas theft penalties are progressive, depending for the most part on the value of the property stolen. The greater the value, the greater the penalty. Subsection (e) of Texas Penal Code §31.03 states those progressively severe penalties, from a mere Class C misdemeanor (punishable by fines up to $500 if the stolen property has a value under $100) to a first-degree felony (punishable by life imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine if the stolen item has a value of $300,000 or more). The full spectrum of theft penalties are:

  • A Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500 if the value of the stolen property is less than $100;
  • A Class B misdemeanor punishable by jail up to 180 days and fine up to $2,000 if the property's value is $100 or more, but less than $750, or the property's value is less than $100, but the defendant has a prior theft conviction, or the property is a driver's license or personal identification certificate;
  • A Class A misdemeanor punishable by jail up to one year and fine up to $4,000 if the property's value is $750 or more but less than $2,500;
  • A state jail felony punishable by jail between 180 days and two years and fine up to $10,000 if the property's value is $2,500 or more, but less than $30,000, or the property is stolen from the person of another or from a human corpse or grave, or the property is a firearm, or the property's value is less than $2,500, but the defendant had two or more prior theft convictions;
  • A third-degree felony punishable by imprisonment between two years and ten years and a fine up to $10,000 if the property's value is $30,000 or more but less than $150,000, or the property is a controlled substance having a value of less than $150,000 if stolen from a commercial building in which a controlled substance is generally stored;
  • A second-degree felony punishable by imprisonment between two years and twenty years and fine up to $10,000 if the property's value is $150,000 or more but less than $300,000, or the property is an automated teller machine or the contents or components thereof; and
  • A first-degree felony punishable by imprisonment for up to life and not less than five years plus a fine up to $10,000 if the property's value is $300,000 or more.

Enhanced Theft Penalties

The prior section shows that even though Texas consolidated theft crimes under a single statute, Texas still distinguishes among different forms of theft. For instance, the above penalties raise the lowest theft level, punishable only by a fine up to $500, to a state jail felony, punishable by between 180 days and two years in jail, when the theft is from the person of another. A robbery using force or threat to take from another would be an example of that elevated theft crime.

Texas statutes, in other words, consolidate theft crimes but then promptly distinguish among them. Subsection (f) of Texas Penal Code §31.03 raises several other variants of the theft crime to the next higher category of offense, for instance, from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, or from a state jail felony to a third-degree felony. Any of these forms of theft would result in the next higher penalty level:

  • The defendant was a public servant at the time of the offense, and the stolen property came into the defendant's control because of that status;
  • The defendant was a government contractor at the time of the offense, and the property came into the defendant's control because of the contract;
  • The property's owner was elderly or a nonprofit organization;
  • The defendant was a Medicare provider at the time of the offense, and the property came into the defendant's control because so; or
  • During the offense, the defendant intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused a fire exit alarm to sound, deactivated a fire alarm or retail theft detector, or used a shielding or deactivation instrument to prevent or attempt to prevent detection.

Defenses to Theft Crimes

A defendant charged with a theft crime may have any number of different and effective defenses. Theft defenses, though, can take skilled and aggressive representation of the kind that premier Texas criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy consistently provides. Given the above statute's many presumptions, theft offenses can be easy to charge against genuinely innocent defendants. Skilled and aggressive representation from a criminal defense attorney of the highest reputation can help police and prosecutors see that the defendant, though presumed to have committed theft, is instead innocent. While presumptions make a prima facie case, the defendant can rebut a presumption with the defendant's own testimony or other evidence.

Contact Our Houston, Texas Theft Defense Lawyer

If you have been charged with any form of theft in Harris County or other surrounding counties, Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. can provide you with legal representation and help you defend against a conviction. Contact us today at 713-229-8333 to set up a free consultation.

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