2

A couple is being charged for spending $120,000 which was deposited to their account in error. This is in Pennsylvania, USA.

The facts are presented as follows: One day, couple wakes up to $120,000 extra dollars due to teller error. The money was intended for a business. They are aware that this must be an error but spend the money anyway. The bank wants the money back. The couple quits talking to the bank. The couple is charged with theft and receiving stolen property.

I am very confused how they can be charged with either of these things. In the case of theft, I think it is fairly plain the couple did nothing to receive the money. No act on their part caused the money to enter their account. I think most reasonable people would agree that at that point, they "have" the money, and what they do with it after that is irrelevant to whether it was stolen. If this is not the case, and the act of spending the money is the theft, then it implies that any money in anyone's account is not theirs, which I seriously doubt a jury would agree with.

With regards to receiving stolen property, there are two options.

1) My claim above is true, and the couple did not steal the money. If the property then is "stolen," the uncomfortable implication is that the bank stole the money. (Teller Error, I don't think, counts as theft).

2) My claim above is untrue, in which case, it's hard to argue they received it at all, since they are the thieves (the reception becomes trivial).

It seems to me that the prosecution is doomed if the couple decides to go to trial.

What's going to give the prosecution a chance to succeed? If they are doomed, why bother filing the charges at all?

Note: I am aware of statues in the case of mail where receiving mail which is not yours and failing to make a reasonable attempt to return it is theft. I am unaware of any similar banking statues.

EDIT: The couple did something wrong. I am not disputing that. I simply don't see how either choice in charge by the prosecution results in a conviction.

  • 4
    If you woke up with a new car in your driveway without knowing where it came from, do you think it you're allowed to drive it, crash it, sell it, or anything else you want to do with it? No, the only appropriate responses are to call the police and/or a tow truck. What makes you think it's different for cash in a bank account? "Finders keepers" is not a valid legal argument. – Luck Sep 9 at 17:00
  • 1
    @Luck, I don't see how that fits this situation. If there's a car in my driveway which is not mine, I assume a person is actively attempting to break and enter my residence. Even if I somehow knew that wasn't the case, the car is a nuisance because now I have to wait for it to be impounded before I can go to work. My pay is hourly, so the owner of that car just lost me some salary. This is more akin to finding a car in your driveway, and an envelope with the keys to it on your doormat. In which case, sure I shouldn't drive it, but I neither stole/received stolen goods. – GridAlien Sep 9 at 17:07
  • 3
    "This is more akin to finding a car in your driveway, and an envelope with the keys to it on your doormat. In which case, sure I shouldn't drive it..." Exactly. But in this case, the people did drive the car that was not theirs. By spending the money which was not theirs, they committed theft. – Luck Sep 9 at 17:15
  • 4
    then it implies that any money in anyone's account is not theirs. No. It means that the money being in your account is not definitive evidence that the money is yours. But of course, it is also true that the money being in your account is not definitive evidence that the money is not yours, either. It just means that you may need additional data to establish ownership. – SJuan76 Sep 9 at 18:03
  • 2
    If you have money in a deposit account that isn't your money, at least not directly. It is money the bank owes you. Here the bank mistakenly thought it owed the couple money, the couple collected that debt without actually being owed the debt, then the bank tried to reverse the mistaken transaction. At no point did that couple have actual ownership of that money so spending it is illegal. Additionally, as the answer points out, the couple failed to fulfill their obligation to notify the bank of errors. – amon Sep 9 at 18:31
2

You're overthinking the situation; the basis of the prosecution of the people who spent the money that appeared in their account will be violation of the Bank Services Agreement for the bank. The service agreement - a legally binding contract - will say that errors in deposits must be reported to the bank, and any funds transferred in error by the bank cannot be used or withdrawn or transferred by the banking customer. The Banking Service Agreement will comply with state and federal laws that govern the financial industry, which is heavily regulated, in part for situations like the news article describes.

The prosecutor has every chance to prevail in court; all the evidence is there, and the law(s) and service agreement will be clear.

The bank customers knowingly spent the money; they can hardly claim they didn't know the money wasn't theirs.

Finding something - like money - doesn't mean it is yours to keep. Yes, possession is nine-tenths of the law (Wikipedia), but not when there is a clear paper or evidence trail, and a service agreement that says otherwise.

  • 3
    @GridAlien No, the service agreement is merely a contract between the bank and the account holder. It's the local laws which make this theft. – Luck Sep 9 at 17:20
  • 1
    Isn't it enough that the couple would deem it a gift? They can regard it akin to someone leaving something at their doorsteps. Even if it's left there by mistake, they can deem it to be a gift. A bank demanding that the "gift" be returned would be just that -- demanding that a gift be returned. The question then stands. What distinguishes an error from a gift? If the only explanation is that it's "absurd" to regard it as a gift, wouldn't that be a call which would have to be made by a jury? – grovkin Sep 9 at 19:58
  • 5
    @grovkin That is actually an excellent argument. The weak spot in the argument is that they would have to convince a judge that it was a gift. Chances for that are approximately zero. – gnasher729 Sep 9 at 20:03
  • 2
    The "something specific, in law" is the legally binding contract between the bank and the customer that says any errors in transfers of funds are regarded as errors and the funds are not the property of the customer. – BlueDogRanch Sep 9 at 20:52
  • 1
    The amount of funds involved doesn't determine if it is civil or criminal. A $2 shoplifting incident can be a crime, a $1,200,000 unjust enrichment case might not be a crime. Generally the dividing line between civil and criminal cases involves intent and who decides to bring charges. – ohwilleke Sep 10 at 1:00
2

Broadly speaking, theft offences in common law jurisdictions are defined as the dishonest appropriation of property that belongs to another with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it, without proper authority (e.g. permission or legal right to do that).

Appropriation means the assumption of the rights of ownership of the property, i.e. behaving as if you were now its owner, not simply or solely the taking of the property.

Possible defences include absence of intent to deprive the rightful owner of the property and intent to search for the rightful owner of the property and return it to them.

You say:

The facts are presented as follows: One day, couple wakes up to $120,000 extra dollars due to teller error. The money was intended for a business. They are aware that this must be an error but spend the money anyway. The bank wants the money back. The couple quits talking to the bank. The couple is charged with theft and receiving stolen property.

I don't know about the charge of receiving stolen property (unless that relates to how they transferred or spent the money) but on the facts presented it's certainly prima facie theft. Reportedly, by their own admissions they found money in their account that wasn't theirs, they knew it wasn't theirs and they spent it.

-1

It’s the crime of larceny

Larceny is a crime involving the unlawful taking of the personal property of another person or business.

It’s not theirs, they took it = larceny.

In some jurisdictions this particular act is given a specific name. For example in it’s called fraudulent appropriation, the penalty can be up to 2 years.

  • As a juror, I would have a very difficult time with "knowingly took it" part. Unless the bank successfully communicated that the money was in the account by mistake, and the bank was able to communicate this before the money was spent, I wouldn't think accused were guilty. – grovkin Sep 9 at 23:11
  • 1
    @grovkin as a juror that wouldn’t be your role. The judge would tell you the facts you needed to decide and that if you decided that A,B and C were true your verdict must be guilty and if any of them were not true it would be not guilty. What acts constitute “knowingly took” is a legal one, not a factual one. – Dale M Sep 9 at 23:59
  • Without a good justification, I would have to respectfully disagree with the last sentence of your last comment. – grovkin Sep 10 at 5:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.