Many definitions of "theft" include specific text regarding "the rightful owner" or a variant necessitating that the victim of theft owned the property. (emphasis mine)

For example, The Free Dictionary defines theft as:

A criminal act in which property belonging to another is taken without that person's consent.

Merriam Webster defines it similarly:

the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it

How do these definitions apply if the person being stolen from is not actually the rightful owner, and has in fact stolen the property himself? What criminal repercussions do thieves of stolen property face?

1 Answer 1


In England and Wales, theft is defined by s1 Theft Act 1968:

A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it

It does not matter if the victim is not the rightful owner of the property, as the law only requires that the property belongs to another: the victim and owner can be two different people. As long as the other elements are present, the offence is committed. It's important when considering theft to look for dishonesty and intention to permanently deprive: borrowing something without permission with the intention to return it isn't theft, and nor is taking something by mistake.

Theft is an 'either-way' offence (i.e. it can be tried summarily or by a jury), and in the latter case carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison (s7 TA 1968).

  • So, if someone takes back something that was stolen from them, that would count as "stealing" it back? I find it difficult to believe that the original owner would then be sent to jail.
    – givanse
    Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 19:14
  • 2
    @givanse: A very literal and pedantic read of that sentence suggests that stealing your own stuff back does not count as appropriating property "belonging to another" because it belongs to you ("another" = "someone other than the thief"). That doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to actually try this, because the other person might take measures to try and stop you, which could result in a variety of unfortunate outcomes.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 6:55

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