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People v. Wilson, 1999 N.Y. Int. 0068 (May 6, 1999).

CRIMINAL LAW - ROBBERY - OWNER


ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue

Whether a security guard has sufficient ownership interest in stolen property to support a robbery conviction.

Disposition

No. Labeling the security guard an owner would expand the crime of robbery beyond the definitional limits imposed by the common law and statute.

SUMMARY

Alvin Wilson was convicted of robbery, petit larceny and weapon possession after he was found holding a box of Timberland boots that were being off-loaded from a delivery truck to Mr. Lee's Men's Shop on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. A security guard returning to his post at a shopping mall directly across the street from Mr. Lee's Men's Shop had intercepted Wilson near the mall exit. Wilson allegedly displayed a box cutter and threatened the guard before he was chased and arrested by a police officer.

The Appellate Division, Second Division, modified the trial court's order by reversing the robbery and petit larceny convictions, stating that the prosecution failed to establish that the security guard had a right of possession to the boots superior to that of Wilson and that Wilson took the boots from the guard.

The Queens County District Attorney asked the Court of Appeals to reverse that portion of the Appellate Division order, arguing that under the Penal Law, Wilson became a "bailee" of the stolen property with a right of possession superior to Wilson's. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument and affirmed.

Robbery and larceny require a taking of property "from an owner thereof" ( see, Penal Law §§ 155.05, 160.00). The Penal Law defines ownership broadly, to include not only the true owner of a chattel, but "any person who has a right to possession thereof superior to that of the taker...." (Penal Law § 155.00[5]). The trial court had reasoned that defendant, as a thief, had no ownership interest in the boots whatsoever, and therefore the security guard's ownership interest must have been greater. The Court of Appeals found this reasoning flawed for it would all but eliminate the element of a taking of property "from an owner thereof." The fact that a thief is not the legitimate owner of stolen property does not define the ownership rights of others.