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Crimes Against Property

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Crimes against property have long been a pervasive issue in the United States, with countless instances occurring daily. From theft and embezzlement to vandalism and arson, crimes against property can result in serious legal consequences for those accused. Property crimes account for a significant percentage of criminal trials in the United States each year. According to the FBI, property crimes comprised approximately 16% of all arrests in 2019.

If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime against property, it's essential to understand the legal implications of these charges and to seek out the resources and support you need to defend yourself. This page will explore some of the most common crimes against property and provide information on how these cases are typically prosecuted in the United States. By understanding the legal system and your rights as a defendant, you can better navigate the criminal justice process and work towards a fair outcome in your case. 

Arson

The legal definition of arson can vary by jurisdiction, but it typically involves intentionally setting fire to property or structures intending to cause harm or destruction.

Arson can be classified as either first-degree or second-degree arson, depending on the circumstances of the crime. First-degree arson usually involves setting fire to a residential dwelling, such as a house or apartment building, and may also include using explosives or other destructive devices. Second-degree arson usually involves setting fire to different types of property, such as commercial buildings, vehicles, or forests. 

Arson can be motivated by various reasons, including revenge, profit, or to conceal another crime. It can also be a form of vandalism or protest. However, regardless of motivation, arson is a serious crime that can result in significant legal and financial consequences, including fines, imprisonment, and restitution payments to the victims of the fire.

Burden of Proof for Defense

In a criminal arson case, the defense may present affirmative defenses. For example, the defense might claim that the defendant had no intent to commit arson or that they were acting in self-defense. In this case, the defense must present evidence that supports their affirmative defense and convince the jury, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defense is valid. 

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution must present evidence supporting each arson element to do so. This may include proof of the defendant's intent to start the fire, evidence linking the defendant to the scene of the fire, eyewitness testimony, and forensic evidence. 

Burglary

Burglary, also known as breaking and entering, is a crime against property that involves unauthorized entry into a building or structure with the intent to commit a felony or theft. 

The act typically involves breaking into a building or structure, such as a house, apartment, or business, through force, like breaking a window or picking a lock. Once inside, the burglar may steal property, commit vandalism, or engage in other criminal activities. 

Burglary is a serious offense that can result in significant harm to the victims of the crime, including loss of property, damage to the building's structure, and emotional distress. In addition, a burglary conviction can result in fines, imprisonment, and restitution payments to the victims.

Burden of Proof for Defense

While the primary burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the defense can present evidence and arguments that challenge the prosecution's case. The defense may present affirmative defenses, such as claiming the defendant had a legal right to enter the building or structure or that they did not intend to commit a crime inside. 

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution will typically attempt to present physical evidence, such as DNA, fingerprints, or other forensic evidence, that links the defendant to the crime scene to meet the burden of proof in a burglary case. It may also include eyewitness testimony from individuals who saw the defendant commit the burglary or who saw them in the vicinity at the time of the crime.

The prosecution may also use circumstantial evidence to build a case against the defendant. This could include evidence that suggests the defendant had the motive to commit the crime, such as financial difficulties or a previous history of burglary. Additionally, the prosecution may show that the defendant had access to tools or weapons used to commit the crime.

Counterfeiting or Forgery

Although it might not seem like it initially, counterfeiting and forgery are generally considered crimes against property since they involve creating or altering documents, currency, or other valuable items. Most jurisdictions view this crime as an intent to deceive or defraud others for financial gain.

Counterfeiting and forgery can involve the creation of fake or fraudulent documents, such as checks, deeds, or contracts, or altering existing documents to change their contents or ownership. It can also involve the creation of counterfeit currency, which is a direct attack on the value of a property. 

Burden of Proof for Defense

In a counterfeiting or forgery case, the defense might attempt to prove the defendant is not guilty by challenging the evidence presented by the prosecution or by presenting evidence that undermines the prosecution’s case. Some strategies the defense might use include lack of intent, lack of knowledge, or duress.

Under lack of intent, the defense may argue that the defendant did not intend to deceive or defraud anyone and did not knowingly create or alter the counterfeit or forged documents. A lack of knowledge defense might argue that the defendant did not know the documents they were handling were counterfeit or forged. Therefore, they cannot be held responsible for any fraudulent activity. 

Lastly, the defense may present a duress defense. This argument may state that the defendant was forced or coerced into participating in the counterfeiting or forgery and that they should not be held responsible for their actions.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty by presenting evidence showing the defendant knowingly created or altered counterfeit or forged documents to deceive or defraud others to secure a conviction. Some strategies that the prosecution might use include presenting forensic evidence, such as handwriting analysis or DNA testing, or a paper trail, like financial records or emails that links the defendant to the counterfeit or forged documents. The prosecution may also present circumstantial evidence, such as a previous pattern of similar crimes or behavior. 

Destruction, Damage, or Vandalism of Property

Destruction, damage, and vandalism of property involve the intentional destruction, defacement, or damage of someone else's property without their consent. These crimes include a wide range of actions, such as spray-painting graffiti on a building, breaking windows, or trespassing. 

These crimes are considered offenses against property because they involve damaging or destroying someone else's physical property, which can result in financial losses or emotional harm to the property owner. The severity of the crime can vary depending on the extent of the damage caused, the property's value, and the perpetrator's intent. 

Burden of Proof for Defense

The defense may try to prove that the defendant is not guilty by using one of several defense strategies, including lack of intent, alibi, or mistaken identity.

If the defense uses a lack of intent defense, they may base their case around the defendant not intending to damage or destroy the property. For example, the defendant may have accidentally caused the damage or acted in self-defense. 

In the case of an alibi, the defense may argue that the defendant was not at the crime scene when it occurred. They may provide evidence, such as witness statements or video footage, to support their claim. 

Lastly, if the defense builds its case around mistaken identity, they will argue that the defendant was wrongly identified as the perpetrator. This may challenge the prosecution's evidence or present their evidence to refute the prosecution's claims.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution will typically try to secure a guilty conviction by presenting evidence that proves the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • The defendant intentionally damaged or destroyed property belonging to another person.

  • The property that was damaged or destroyed had some value.

  • The defendant did not have the owner’s consent to damage or destroy the property. 

To prove these elements, the prosecution may present various evidence, including witness testimony and physical evidence, to connect the defendant to the damaged property. The prosecution may also attempt to show that the defendant had the motive to damage the property, such as a personal grudge or financial gain. Lastly, if the defendant has a history of similar criminal behavior, the prosecution may use this to show that the defendant has a pattern of destructive behavior.

Embezzlement

Embezzlement involves the unlawful taking or appropriation of money or property entrusted to an individual, typically by their employer or another person in a position of trust. 

The crime of embezzlement occurs when the individual entrusted with the property intentionally takes, uses, or converts it for their own personal gain without the owner's permission. This is often done in a way that is concealed or disguised to avoid detection, such as falsifying records or creating false invoices. 

Burden of Proof for Defense

If the defendant faces embezzlement charges, the defense may attempt to prove their innocence by building a case around lack of intent, ownership, or consent.

Under a lack of intent defense, the defense may argue that the defendant did not have the necessary intent to commit embezzlement. In other words, they may claim that any taking of property or funds was accidental or inadvertent rather than intentional.

If the defense attempts an ownership defense, they may argue that the defendant had a legitimate claim of ownership or authorization to use the funds in question and therefore did not commit embezzlement.

Lastly, under a consent defense, the defense may argue that the owner of the funds consented to the defendant's use of the funds and that no embezzlement occurred.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to commit the crime. That is, they intentionally took or converted the funds for their own use to secure a guilty conviction for an embezzlement case. 

The prosecution may also argue that the defendant was in a position of trust or authority over the funds in question and therefore had a duty to safeguard them. By showing the defendant breached this duty, the prosecution may argue that the defendant committed embezzlement. In addition, the prosecution may try to prove that the defendant attempted to conceal their actions, such as falsifying records or creating false invoices, to avoid detection.

Larceny

Larceny, otherwise known as theft or robbery, involves the unlawful taking and carrying away of someone else's personal property, such as a bicycle, or shoplifting from a store without their consent. It can also include more subtle forms of theft, such as the unauthorized use of someone else's property.

Car theft is also considered a larceny offense. Specifically, it is classified as a form of grand larceny, the theft of property that exceeds a certain value or is otherwise considered particularly serious. 

Burden of Proof for Defense

The defense may use several strategies to prove the defendant's innocence in a larceny case, including arguing lack of intent, disputing ownership, or presenting an alibi. 

If arguing lack of intent, the defense will build their case around the concept that the defendant did not intend to steal the property or did not realize they were taking property that belonged to someone else. 

If the defense disputes ownership, they may argue that the property in question belonged to the defendant or that they had a legitimate right to possess or use the property. 

Lastly, if the defendant has an alibi, the defense may argue that the defendant was not present at the time of the alleged theft or that they were in a different location and, therefore, could not have committed the crime.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution must present evidence that proves the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a guilty conviction in a larceny case. Specifically, they must demonstrate the following:

  • The defendant took and carried away property that belonged to someone else. 

  • The defendant did so without the owner’s consent. 

  • The defendant intended to deprive the owner of the property permanently.

The prosecution may use several different strategies to secure a conviction, such as eyewitness testimony, physical evidence, and demonstrating a motive. 

Legal Resources for Defendants

Defending a criminal charge can be complex and daunting, but with the right resources and support, you can protect your rights and receive a fair trial. In this list, we will explore some of the legal resources available for defendants in cases involving crimes against property. These resources can provide legal representation, advice, and other types of support to help you ensure that you receive a fair trial and can protect your rights throughout the criminal justice process.

Legal Aid Societies

Legal aid societies can be beneficial for defendants in a case involving a crime against property. These organizations provide free or low-cost legal assistance to individuals who cannot afford an attorney, which can be especially important in criminal cases where a defendant's freedoms and livelihood are at stake. 

In addition to legal representation, legal aid societies can advise and counsel defendants representing themselves or who have limited access to legal resources. This can include guidance on legal procedures, assistance filling out legal forms, and other types of support.

To find your local legal aid society, search online or visit the directory on the Legal Services Corporation’s website.

State Bar Associations

Local and state bar associations can be a valuable resource for individuals accused of a crime against property. By providing lawyer referral services, legal resources, and continuing education, bar associations can help ensure that individuals receive competent legal representation and can protect their rights in the criminal justice system.

To find your local bar association, you can visit the online directory available on the American Bar Association’s website or conduct an online search.

Law School Clinics

Law school clinics are run by law schools and provide legal services to individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Under the supervision of an experienced attorney, law students may assist with various aspects of the case, such as legal research, drafting of legal documents, and representation in court. Law students may also be able to provide advice and counseling to defendants who are representing themselves, such as help filling out forms. In addition, some clinics conduct educational workshops or outreach events to help educate the public about their legal rights. 

To find a law school clinic near you, you can start by researching law schools in your area or visit the American Bar Association’s Directory of Law School Public Interest and Pro Bono Programs to find information on clinics across the United States.

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