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If I take somebody's property without consent, with the intent of keeping it, it is theft.

If I take somebody's property without consent, but return it to them immediately, what law am I violating? Assume I return the property in perfect state, completely undamaged.

For example:

  • The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) has placed No Trespassing signs near a military base. I remove the signs and return them to the headquarters of the MOD¹.
  • Someone has attached a trail camera in the forest. I take it down and bring it back to the owner.
  • The local authority has put a sign indicating through-traffic through my street. I remove the sign and deliver it to the local authority offices.
  • Scientists have installed measurement equipment to monitor something. I remove the equipment and return it to the institute owning it.

I'm a nuisance in any case, but what law am I violating, if not theft?


¹ I heard about it in a sort of cat-and-mouse game between British peace activists and the police:

1. A group of peace activists walked passed a "No trespassing" sign near a military base, in order to document (and perhaps disrupt) activities. They are arrested for walking past a "No trespassing" sign.

2. A group of peace activists remove the "No trespassing" signs. Others walk past the location of the sign. They say that they have not seen the "No trespassing" sign, and can apparently not be arrested for violating it when the owner has not clearly indicated "No trespassing". However, they are arrested for theft (or conspiring to steal) Ministry of Defence property (the signs).

3. A group of peace activists remove the "No trespassing" signs obtained at a military base, drive to the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, and deliver the signs at the reception. Meanwhile, others walk past the location of the sign. Police are not sure what to arrest them for, for they have not stolen the signs and the "No trespassing" is apparently not valid when not clearly stated.

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    I think it may be the tort of trespass to goods, but I don't know much about it beyond what I've read on Wikipedia. Maybe someone with more direct knowledge can help. – Nate Eldredge Sep 7 '18 at 14:14
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    In the US, or at least in some states, there is a crime of criminal mischief. Wikipedia says that there's something similar in Scotland, malicious mischief. – phoog Sep 7 '18 at 17:39
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All of these sound like violations of the Criminal Damage Act of 1971.

The courts seem to construe "damage" fairly broadly, to include damage that affects an object's value or usefulness, so I'd imagine that removing signs or cameras or anything else would satisfy that definition.

  • Are there any authorities for the proposition that simply moving an object to a place where its less valuable is damage? That seems a long way from the ordinary meaning of the word. – bdsl Sep 9 '18 at 20:52
  • I was looking at cases when I wrote this, but I can't find them now. But if Item A is mounted to Item B to make Item A useful, I wouldn't be particularly surprised to see a prosecutor bring charges against someone who disassembled them to make Item A useless, even temporarily. In my experience, it's pretty common to see charges outside the dictionary definition of a statute's title. "Rioting" is a great example. – bdb484 Sep 10 '18 at 1:27

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