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I have a practical example question that this applies to, so I'd like to know the answer in general, but specifically how it applies here.

Let's say I find something I'd like to buy on Craigslist, being sold on the order of $1000. Let's say I text with the guy, we meet up in public, and I buy the item with cash. Then let's say, it turns out it was stolen, the guy gets caught, and confesses to the police/victim and tells them my name/phone number/transaction details.

I have several similar/related questions about this scenario:

  1. How would this proceed? It seems like it would be very difficult to prove (short of getting public surveillance footage) that I even bought the item. What if I just said "sorry, I never ended up buying it." Surely they couldn't/wouldn't get a warrant to search my house?
  2. Let's say they somehow do prove that I bought it (very contrived, but the guy was recording our conversation or something). Could I be prosecuted if I didn't know it was stolen? That's what this section seems to be saying, but that sounds crazy to me, because it would mean basically buying anything puts you at risk.

I ask this because I was getting a little paranoid and was thinking about the implications of this: I'm imagining a scam where someone sells me a "stolen" item and then the "victim" (really their accomplice) says "I found out that you bought an item stolen from me, but the thief got away" and presents me with irrefutable evidence (e.g., a receipt for the item with its serial number) that the item was his. He could potentially threaten me to return it to him, and then I've lost my money (since the "thief" is in the wind) but they still have their item.

It's unlikely, I know, but I'm wondering what the legal implications of this would be. Thank you!

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    If you were being smart then in #1 you would simply refuse to answer questions by any investigators. Lying to investigators about the substance of an investigation could constitute a crime like obstruction of justice. – feetwet Aug 17 '15 at 17:46
  • Also, if soneobe says "you bought this but it was stolen from me," you should probably talk to a lawyer before handing anything over. – cpast Aug 17 '15 at 18:35
  • Also, what state is your hypo in? – cpast Aug 17 '15 at 18:40
  • @feetwet Also if the investigators are federal then lying to them is a serious crime in itself, even if it makes no difference to their investigation. – Paul Johnson Nov 14 at 18:25
  • "a receipt for the item with its serial number" - that just indicates that at some point they bought the item, not that it was stolen from them. They could have sold it on or given it away and now they regret that action or see an opportunity to regain ownership. – Moo Nov 14 at 21:11
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You are conflating the crime against the state of possession stolen goods with the common law tort against the owner for conversion.

To your questions:

How would this proceed? It seems like it would be very difficult to prove (short of getting public surveillance footage) that I even bought the item.

If you read the second paragraph of the page you linked it says:

In many jurisdictions, if an individual has accepted possession of goods or property and knew they were stolen, then the individual is typically charged ... If the individual did not know the goods were stolen, then the goods are returned to the owner and the individual is not prosecuted.

Proof of the crime involves a "beyond reasonable doubt" standard of evidence of both the fact that you have the goods and that you knew they were stolen. If you become aware that they were stolen (e.g. the police tell you) and try to keep them then you have just committed the crime.

Proof of the tort requires a "balance of probabilities" standard of evidence that you have the goods and that they belong to someone else; your knowledge that they were stolen is immaterial.

In the first instance, the police would probably knock on your door, tell you why they were there and ask if the version of the story they have from the thief is essentially true. What happens next depends on your response:

  1. "Yes, I knew it was stolen; you better arrest me and I will plead guilty." This will play out as you expect.
  2. "Yes, I didn't know it was stolen, I will go and get it for you." You return the goods, give a statement and may have to act as a witness in the prosecution of the thief. You are down $1,000 but are now older and wiser.
  3. "No, I have no idea what you are talking about." Well, you have now committed the crime of hindering a police investigation and have also committed the crime of possessing stolen goods - you can no longer claim that you didn't know the goods were stolen; the police have told you they are. What happens next depends on if the police believe you or the thief.

Surely they couldn't/wouldn't get a warrant to search my house?

Want to bet? They certainly have enough to get a search warrant if they want one (probably). Whether they seek one probably depends on the value of the goods, how busy they are and how much you pissed them off.

Could I be prosecuted if I didn't know it was stolen?

Not if you return it as soon as practicable after being made aware that they were.

The scam

This seems like a lot of work for a very small return - spend your time worrying about things that are more likely to happen.

Good Title

All of this is tied up with the concept of good title. Basically, you cannot gain good title to property from someone who does not have good title themselves; if you buy goods from a thief you do not own them.

For example, if A has good title to the goods, B steals them and sells them to C who sells them to D then A still owns them and can demand their return from D, D could demand the return of their money from C and C could do likewise with B but as far as A is concerned it doesn't matter that C & B have lost money; that is simply too bad for them.

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    Why not #4, "Oh, I didn't know it was stolen. I'll be glad to return it to the rightful owner as soon as the balance of probabilities proves it in civil court or as soon as I'm convinced of it, whichever comes first"? (But +1.) – msh210 Aug 18 '15 at 6:06
  • This question law.stackexchange.com/questions/4554/… seems to contain usegul information... – DJohnM Dec 25 '17 at 23:11
  • If #2 allows for you to proceed in a civil suit to recover your $1000 from the thief, then I'd kinda like that added, even if it is perhaps a bit outside the scope of the question. – Roger Nov 14 at 18:16
  • @Roger so add it – Dale M Nov 14 at 18:17
  • @DaleM the first "if" there is not rhetorical -- I don't know if #2 does actually allow this or not. – Roger Nov 14 at 18:18
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I haven't studied the laws of all 50 states, but most if not all laws against receiving stolen property have what is called a "scienter requirement": You must know that the goods were stolen for it to be a crime.

For example, here's the law from my home state of Michigan: "A person shall not buy, receive, possess, conceal, or aid in the concealment of stolen, embezzled, or converted money, goods, or property knowing, or having reason to know or reason to believe, that the money, goods, or property is stolen, embezzled, or converted." https://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(2ng4lbx1mc0q5rvu2yew3twy))/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=mcl-750-535 It goes on to discuss details and penalties, but the point I want to make is "knowing or having reason to know or reason to believe".

If someone approaches you and tells you, "Hey, I just stole this cell phone, must be worth $500 but I'll sell it to you for $50", and you buy it, you've clearly broken the law.

If someone puts an ad on Craigslist or Ebay or some such offering to sell a product and there is no clue that it is stolen and you buy it, you have not committed a crime and cannot be prosecuted.

Theoretically, at least, to convict you of a crime, the prosecutor would have to prove in court that you knew the property was stolen. As you say, that could be difficult to prove. If they don't have video of the thief telling you the product was stolen and you didn't foolish post on Facebook that you got this product real cheap because it was stolen or some such, that could be difficult to prove. "He should have known it was stolen because the price was so low"? Maybe you thought the person was just trying to get some fast cash. "It had someone else's name engraved on it"? The thief could have told you that he bought it from this other person. Etc. Frankly, short of the police actually having heard a conversation in which it was discussed that the item was stolen, I doubt you'd be prosecuted over one item. If you're buying stolen goods every week and re-selling them, different story.

Note that you can be required to return property if it is discovered that something you bought was stolen. Theoretically you could sue the thief who sold it to you to get your money back, but I'm guessing if they tracked the stolen property to you they caught him too and he's going to jail and probably doesn't have any money, so good luck with that. You're probably out whatever you paid for it, but you're not going to jail over it.

Yeah, a frame like you describe shouldn't be possible. One could always speculate about it being done well enough to fool the police, or an incompetent or overzealous prosecutor and judge convicting you even though you're innocent. But you could say that about any crime. You could be framed for murder or kidnapping or whatever even though you're completely innocent.

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