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I was looking into the definition of theft in the UK and found (emphasis mine):

Theft is defined by section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention to permanently deprive the other of it

I also found this answer which explains:

In other words, a thief may say 'I only wished to borrow it', but that won't necessarily amount to a defence under English law. It depends on how long (s)he borrows it for, and how (s)he treats it while borrowing it.

In addition, the case law clarifies what is meant by 'his intention is to treat the thing as his own to dispose of regardless of the other's rights'. This has been held to mean:

Selling, Bargaining with. R v Cahill, R v Lloyd
Rendering Useless. DPP v J
Dealing with in a manner which risks its loss. R v Fernandes, R v Marshall
Borrowing in certain circumstances. R v Lloyd
Pawning. s6(2) Theft Act 1968
Not enough to just deal with it. R v Mitchell

Which makes sense to be but seems to still leave a gap. Based on my understanding of that people can still take your belongings without your permission and as long as they return it promptly, don't pawn it or damage it they have not committed theft. Is that true? Could they be convicted of some other crime then?

Additionally I don't see the use word permanently used in any US reference I've found but it does seem to appear in general definitions of the crime so I'm also curious if the US has any "permanently deprive" criteria as well.

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    This is most commonly seen in the separate charge of joyriding (often called unlawfully driving away automobile in the US, taking without owner's consent in the UK), which is usually a lesser crime than grand theft.
    – user71659
    Commented Mar 27 at 23:35
  • @user71659 yeah I'm curious about anything though really because if I just start using my neighbors lawnmower and they don't want me to for example is that not a crime? I know most examples I can think of would also involve trespass but I'm sure not all. I surely hope it's not perfectly legal to just "borrow" things without permission.
    – jesse_b
    Commented Mar 27 at 23:38
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    Does this answer your question? Temporary theft, or, removing someones property to deliver it to their home or office
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 28 at 8:25
  • @gerrit sort of but all of the examples in that question are scenarios in which the usefulness of the object is affected, and the answer involves damage which the theft act also accounts for damage even when not permanent. I'm specifically wondering about cases where a person objectively does no damage to the item but simply doesn't have permission to use it.
    – jesse_b
    Commented Mar 28 at 12:56
  • You have been deprived of the use of it
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 28 at 19:46

3 Answers 3

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The Theft Act 1968 elaborates on the permanent-deprivation element as follows:

A person appropriating property belonging to another without meaning the other permanently to lose the thing itself is nevertheless to be regarded as having the intention of permanently depriving the other of it if his intention is to treat the thing as his own to dispose of regardless of the other’s rights; and a borrowing or lending of it may amount to so treating it if, but only if, the borrowing or lending is for a period and in circumstances making it equivalent to an outright taking or disposal.

In other words, "permanent" doesn't necessarily mean permanent; it just means that you're taking the property in a way that suggests you're the actual owner.

I'd say this leaves a certain amount of wiggle room for juries to decide what does and does not amount to a permanent deprivation, but there are probably also some cases that remain pretty clear.

Imagine that it unexpectedly starts to rain while Dan is at a restaurant. He sees Victor's raincoat hanging unattended by the front door. On the one hand, it seems clear that he does not commit a theft if he picks up the coat, stares wistfully at it, and then places it back on the coatrack. At the same time, it's clear he does commit a theft if he walks home with it and then throws it in the trash, sincerely hoping that some bizarre coincidence causes Victor to reunite with it.

But there are lots of possible scenarios in the middle:

  • If Dan throws the coat on to retrieve his wallet from the car, and then returns it to the coat rack, did he intend to permanently deprive Victor of the coat? Seems unlikely.
  • If Dan hides the coat underneath a bunch of other coats also hanging by the door, did he intend to permanently deprive Victor of the coat? Again, I think it seems unlikely.
  • If Dan walks home with the coat, sincerely intending to then immediately drive it back to the restaurant, but then forgets to take it back, did he intend to permanently deprive Victor of the coat? That's trickier.
  • If Dan wears the coat home, puts it in a box, and then hands it off to Western Union to deliver to Victor in 70 years, did he intend to permanently deprive Victor of the coat? I'd say this is close enough.

Of course, even if you take property without violating the statute, that does not necessarily mean you have not committed any violation of the law. It remains possible that you are subject to criminal liability for some other offense (Removal of articles from places open to the public, Taking motor vehicle or other conveyance without authority), or that the owner could pursue you civilly for conversion, trespass to chattels, or some other tort.

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  • Right I'm most curious about your first example of using the coat to retrieve his wallet and then returning it. I understand that is a petty example but IMO should still be a criminal act if the owner of the coat wants it to be. Especially since as written it seems the owner has no real recourse to stop it. What if Dan and Victor work together and Dan habitually uses Victor's things even though Victor has asked Dan repeatedly to stop? According to the law it might not matter as long as Dan consistently returns the items promptly.
    – jesse_b
    Commented Mar 28 at 1:09
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    I don't agree; every law does not need to be the remedy for every injury, and the Theft Act 1968 doesn't need to be the remedy for every unauthorized interference with personal property. As the last paragraph of the answer says, if Dan does this all the time, Victor has other potential remedies besides criminal prosecution under the Theft Act 1968: (1) criminal prosecution under some other statute; (2) a lawsuit against Dan; (3) asking their boss to fire Dan.
    – bdb484
    Commented Mar 28 at 1:15
  • The Law Commission did in fact consider making taking generally a theft offence, but they decided not to do so. Nowadays the "dishonest" component is probably a more powerful filter than is intention to permanently deprive. Commented Mar 28 at 8:54
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    "Hey, Victor, I borrowed your coat. Will return it later. Love, Dan" — A note found hanging in Victor's coat rack. Commented Mar 28 at 12:24
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    @jesse_b go a step further - I urgently need to sign a document and use your pen that's lying around. By your argument, that should be a criminal offense. But some things are not criminal, just rude.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:42
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One term for this is criminal conversion

Criminal conversion is a crime, limited to parts of common law systems outside England and Wales, of exerting unauthorized use or control of someone else's property, at a minimum personal property, but in some jurisdictions also applying to types of real property, such as land (to squatting or holding over) or to patents, design rights and trademarks. It differs from theft in that it does not include the element of intending to deprive the owner of permanent possession of that property.

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What is theft when not permanent? Theft

118 Intent to return property no defence

Where, on the trial of a person for larceny, it appears that the accused appropriated the property in question to the accused’s own use, or for the accused’s own benefit, or that of another, but intended eventually to restore the same, or in the case of money to return an equivalent amount, such person shall not by reason only thereof be entitled to acquittal.

So I can take property with the intent to return it if I don’t also have the intention that I or others will benefit from it. For example, if I find a wallet, I can take it with the intention of identifying the owner and contacting them, or handing it in to the owner of the premises or the police; that’s not theft. But if I take it to benefit from it, that’s theft.

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    Although what you said might be true, but that's not from your quote. The quote only said that the intention of returning the property (or full amount in case of money) cannot be used as a defence as long as the person or other has used the property or benefit from it. Hence the key point there is "use/benefit". Returning or not is irrelevant. Commented Mar 28 at 9:41
  • Here's a twist: I find a wallet on the street and pick it up with the intention of finding the owner and returning it. In the meantime, I walk into a shop to buy milk/bread/whatever and realise that I left my own wallet at home. I use money from the found wallet to pay for my purchase with the intention of later putting an equivalent amount back into this wallet. Is this covered by 118?
    – Aleks G
    Commented Mar 28 at 14:48
  • @AleksG yes - not the finding, at that point you lack the intention to steal. The theft occurs when you appropriate the money for your own purposes.
    – Dale M
    Commented Mar 28 at 22:35
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    @Mazura This does not belong on ELU. "What is theft when not permanent?" is a law question which would be moved here. Commented Mar 29 at 8:58
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    @jesse_b "English Language & Usage Stack Exchange" english.stackexchange.com
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 30 at 2:52

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