The DC Court of Appeals in LIHLAKHAV. U.S, issued recently on April 24, 2014, was presented for the first time with a case with a factual background to consider and analyze a “return for reward defense” in connection with a receiving stolen property conviction. The defendant here was convicted of both receiving stolen property and unlawful entry. On the stolen property — a laptop– reward was offered by the owner for the return of the property.
The D.C. Code enumerates the following elements requisite to prove a stolen property conviction: A person commits the offense of receiving  stolen property if that person  buys, receives, possesses, or obtains control of stolen property,  knowing or having reason to believe that the property was stolen,  with the intent to deprive another of the right to the property or a benefit of the property.
The defendant did not contest the first two elements on appeal and conceded on record: that the property was stolen by someone and that Lihlakha (defendant) received, possessed, or obtained control of the property. The property was a laptop belonging to Banks (the victim), and Banks had offered a $1000 reward to whoever returns it. Defendant based on testimony knew or should have known the property was stolen. The case on appeal turned on the 4th element of the statute carving a valid return for reward defense.
The defendant essentially argued that she did not have a criminal intent as she was merely trying to return Banks’ property back to her according to a return for reward contract, which was perfectly legal and valid.
Specifically, she argued in offering a reward for return of her computer, Banks had voluntarily entered into a valid unilateral contract by which Lihlakha would receive an advertised reward in exchange for returning Banks’ computer. In order to fulfill this contract, she had to take possession of the computer and thus lacked a criminal intent. In another word, defendant’s possession of the stolen property was by the consent of the rightful owner and that the defendant only took possession of the computer intending to return it for reward but not to deprive the rightful owner.
The Court in carving an exception and elaborating on a return for reward defense distinguished between cases when return of the property was premised on a demand for payment or when a reward has been offered for return of the stolen property and under these specific conditions:
(1) the reward had been announced, or was believed to have been announced, before the property was possessed or agreed to be possessed; (2) the person claiming the reward had nothing to do with the theft; (3) the possessor returned the property without unreasonable delay to the rightful owner or to a law enforcement officer; and (4) the possessor imposed no condition on return of the property.
If all of the above elements are factually presented and determined by the trial court, then, there is a valid “return for reward defense” exculpating the defendant of the criminal intent requisite under the statute.
Based on this articulated exception in reward for return cases, ultimately the Court ruled that the trial judge had “made no express finding on whether Lihlakha’s returning the property in response to a reward negated her criminal intent” and thus remanded the case for further factual findings consistent with the opinion.
The Law Offices of David Stein is a Washington DC based litigation firm specialized in complex criminal and family law matters.