Requirement of felonious intent (mens rea to deprive another of his rightfully owned property) for larceny/theft crimes

Vector illustration cartoon male thief carrying a bag with a loot. Character man robber with a big sack. Flat style. Caught a burglar by the wall.

An honest belief that the property is one’s own precludes felonious intent and is a defense to the crime of larceny or theft. State v. Hicks, 683 P. 2d 186 (Wash Supreme Ct 1984).

In any prosecution for theft, it shall be a sufficient defense that the property or service was appropriated openly and avowedly under a claim of title made in good faith, even though the claim be untenable.

Clerk’s Papers (quoted in State v. Hicks, 683 P.2d 186 (1984))

Felonious intent (mens rea) exists only if the actor intends to take the property of another without believing in good faith that he or she has a right or claim to it. People v. Russell, 51 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 272-73 (CA Ct of Appeal, 6th App. Dist. 2006); People v. Karasek, 63 Mich. App. 706, 713-14, 234 NW 2d 761 (MI Ct of Appeals 1975).

[T]he essential elements of armed robbery are: (1) that an assault was committed by defendant upon the complainant; (2) that the defendant feloniously took any property which might be the subject of larceny from the complainant or in his presence; and (3) that the defendant was armed with a weapon described in the statute. Because larceny is a specific intent crime, armed robbery also requires specific intent as larceny is an integral part of any armed robbery. Therefore, if the specific intent to steal of larceny is lacking, there can be no armed robbery. 

“A felonious intent is an inseparable and essential ingredient of every larceny, and if a person takes property under a claim of right, however, unfounded, he is not guilty of the offense. In all cases where one in good faith takes another’s property under a claim of right to do so, or under a claim of title in himself, he is exempt from a charge of larceny, however mistaken the claim may be in fact. It is a matter of evidence for the jury whether property was bona fide so taken, or whether it was taken with felonious intent.”

A similar statement was made in People v Hillhouse, 80 Mich. 580; 45 NW 484 (1890):

“In all cases where one in good faith takes another’s property under a claim of right so to do, or of title in himself, he is exempt from the charge of larceny, however puerile or mistaken the claim may in fact be. It is a matter of evidence for the jury whether it was bona fide so taken, or whether it was taken from the person actually in possession of it with felonious intent.”

The cases of Driscoll v People, 47 Mich. 413 (1882), and People v Henry, 202 Mich. 450 (1918), both involved charges of armed robbery. In both cases it was said that if the defendant, in good faith, believed that the money which he demanded was his money, or that he was entitled to its possession, he could not be guilty of the crime of robbery, despite the use of force, because there would be no felonious intent.

. . .

(1) One who takes the property of another by the authority of a third person whom he believes in good faith to be the owner or entitled to the possession is not guilty of larceny. (2) If the property is taken by the creditor in the honest, although mistaken, belief that he has a right to pay himself the debt in this way, however, there is no felonious intent and the taking is not larceny.

People v. Karasek, 234 N.W.2d 761 (Mich. App. 1975) (citations omitted).

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