Is It a Crime to Receive an Item That You Know Belongs to a Third Party?

The Gizmodo controversy involves, among other things, this question: Say that someone (Finder) offers you an item, and you know it belongs to a third party, who may have lost it or had it stolen from him. Is it a crime for you to receive it?

Here are the relevant statutes:

Cal. Penal Code § 485: One who finds lost property under circumstances which give him knowledge of or means of inquiry as to the true owner, and who appropriates such property to his own use, or to the use of another person not entitled thereto, without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.

Cal. Penal Code § 496(a): Every person who buys or receives any property that has been stolen or that has been obtained in any manner constituting theft or extortion, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained, or who conceals, sells, withholds, or aids in concealing, selling, or withholding any property from the owner, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained [is guilty of the crime of receiving stolen property].

So the matter turns on what you knew about the provenance of the goods. If you knew Finder had stolen the goods, or had found them and didn’t “first mak[e] reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him,” then you’re guilty of receiving stolen property. Nor does it matter, I think, whether you buy the property or get it for free; getting it for free counts as “receiving,” though again the knowledge requirement must be satisfied.

Note also that People v. Boinus, 153 Cal.App.2d 618, 621-622, 314 P.2d 787, 790 (1957), held, “Although guilty knowledge of the fact that the property was stolen is an essential fact to be proved in a prosecution for receiving stolen property, such knowledge need not be that actual and positive knowledge which is acquired from personal observation of the fact. It is not necessary that the defendant be told directly that the property was stolen. Knowledge may be circumstantial and deductive. Among the elements from which knowledge may be inferred are that the property was obtained from a person of questionable character, and the failure of the accused to satisfactorily expla[i]n his possession. Possession of stolen property, accompanied by an unsatisfactory explanation of the possession or by suspicious circumstances, will justify an inference that the property was received with knowledge is had been stolen.”