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This question is partially based on a question on workplace but to make it more easily answerable I will specify some of the circumstances more.

Suppose an employee is issued a computer to use for his work. Suppose further that the employment contract allows for reasonable personal use of the computer (if this is not common we can assume that personal use is not strictly forbidden by the contract/internal rules). Suppose that the employee is notified by his superior before termination that he should return the computer in an email that is addressed to the HR and the employee is cc'd on it, where the manager asks HR how the return should be processed. The HR does not respond regarding how to process the return of the computer.

Employee is now no longer employed but has the computer in their possession. They take no steps to return the computer to the company. But they do not actively avoid doing so if the company takes steps to get it back. Is that a crime of any sort?

Suppose that furthermore the employee continues using the computer for personal stuff and allows their family to do so too. Is this a crime of any sort?

Please assume that the original contract is sufficiently vague with regards to how the employee is supposed to actually return equipment given to them, and also probably ignore the various breach of contracts issues in case the company has internal rules regarding any kind of security or safety issues.

For jurisdiction assume US, if state specific, let's go with California.

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Many states, including Colorado, at Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-4-401, have consolidated a wide variety of common law crimes related to taking property that doesn't belong to you into a single consolidated theft statute which is very broadly defined.

In those states, this offense would constitute theft.

The definition of theft in Colorado (at Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-4-401(1) is as follows:

A person commits theft when he or she knowingly obtains, retains, or exercises control over anything of value of another without authorization or by threat or deception;  or receives, loans money by pawn or pledge on, or disposes of anything of value or belonging to another that he or she knows or believes to have been stolen, and:

(a) Intends to deprive the other person permanently of the use or benefit of the thing of value;

(b) Knowingly uses, conceals, or abandons the thing of value in such manner as to deprive the other person permanently of its use or benefit;

(c) Uses, conceals, or abandons the thing of value intending that such use, concealment, or abandonment will deprive the other person permanently of its use or benefit;

(d) Demands any consideration to which he or she is not legally entitled as a condition of restoring the thing of value to the other person;  or

(e) Knowingly retains the thing of value more than seventy-two hours after the agreed-upon time of return in any lease or hire agreement.

Thus, it is legally theft when the employee concludes that he doesn't plan to return the computer, but not when he is planning on returning it and just hasn't gotten around to doing that. But, as a practical matter, a conviction can probably be obtained from circumstantial evidence and a failure to return the item within a reasonable time (if there is no more specific standard set for the time that it is required to be returned and if no demand for its return is made by the company).

In states that don't have a consolidated theft statute, figuring out which of the various common law property crimes such as larceny and embezzlement apply to this fact pattern is trickier and will come down to the exact language of the statutes in question and the case law interpreting those statutes.

Larceny, at common law, was the non-violent taking of tangible personal property with an intent to permanently deprive its owner of it.

Embezzlement, at common law, was the taking of property from someone who has placed you in a position of trust with respect to that property without authorization.

There are, in states with such distinct subtypes of theft, legitimate arguments that either, both, or neither, or those specific offenses apply to this fact pattern. The position of trust component takes the facts further from the heartland of larceny. The fact that it is tangible personal property rather than money, takes it further away from the heartland of embezzlement.

There are probably other specific common law theft offenses that could also be implicated that I haven't mentioned.

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  • +1 Thank you for a great explanation I will wait a little longer before accepting though, just in case someone might know a case on point or something.
    – DRF
    Jun 11 at 7:57
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"Conversion" is not a crime in California, but larceny is. However, it is not obvious that this act fits the definition of larceny. The closest you get is where the law applies to one "who shall fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or her". However, fraud involves a false representation, whereas it seems that in this case the person has perhaps willfully and intentionally but still openly failed to return the goods. Para (b) extends this to rental equipment, where it may be rebuttably presumed that there is an "intent to commit theft by fraud"

if the person fails to return the personal property to its owner within 10 days after the owner has made written demand by certified or registered mail following the expiration of the lease or rental agreement for return of the property so leased or rented

but this is not a rented computer (another requirement is that the item "has a value greater than one thousand dollars ($1,000) and is not a commonly used household item").

The person can be sued for conversion, but it is not a crime for which you can be arrested.

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  • +1 Very interesting thank you. I have to say I'm surprised that this (fairly straightforward I would have thought) fact pattern is at least somewhat jurisdiction dependent.
    – DRF
    Jun 11 at 7:59

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