Criminal Law: Single Larceny Doctrine and Theft Scheme

In Webb v. State, 971 A.2d 949, 185 Md. App. 580 (Md. App., 2009), the Court was faced with the question of whether the single larceny doctrine applied when property was taken at separate times from separate persons, but found at the same time on the Defendant. Specifically, Webb, who was under surveillance for suspected theft, was seen driving a van and getting into an accident. Webb, 971 A.2d at 951. He tried the flee the scene and was apprehended. Id. At that time, it was determined that the van was stolen and that the van contained two stolen motorcycles. Id. At trial, he was found guilty of counts of possession of stolen property and was sentenced to three ten year terms that ran consecutively for an aggregate of thirty years. Id.

The "single larceny doctrine" was first recognized by the Maryland Court of Appeals in State v. Warren, 77 Md. 121, 26 A. 500 (1893) and more recently re-examined in Kelley v. State, 402 Md. 745, 756, 939 A.2d 149 (2008). Webb, 971 A.2d 953. This doctrine arose from a common law principle and usually came up in three contexts:

  1. whether a count in a charging document alleging that the defendant stole the property of several persons at the same time charges more than one offense and is therefore duplicitous;
  2. whether a prosecution, conviction, or sentencing for stealing the property of one person bars, under double jeopardy principles, the prosecution, conviction, or sentencing for having stolen the property of another person at the same time; and
  3. whether, when the property of different persons is stolen at the same time, the values of the separate items of property may be aggregated to raise the grade of the offense or the severity of the punishment, to the extent that either is dependent on the value of the property taken.

Id . at 971-2. Under the single larceny doctrine, although multiple items of property might be stolen from one or multiple people, it would still be considered one offense, so long as the act is one continuous act. Warren, 77 Md. at 122, 26 A. 500. Furthermore, even if there is a gap in time between the takings, the takings may be encompassed under a single charge if "a single scheme conceivably may be found where multiple takings from different owners at different locations are in quick and unbroken succession and from a limited area." Kelley, 402 Md. at 758, 939 A.2d 149. The Court also held that the State has the burden of proving whether takings were a single scheme or separate acts. Id. at 756.

Today, the single larceny doctrine is codified under Md.Code Ann., Criminal Law § 7-103:

f) Course of conduct—Aggregation.— When theft is committed in violation of this part under one scheme or continuing course of conduct, whether from the same or several sources:

  1. the conduct may be considered as one crime; and
  2. the value of the property or services may be aggregated in determining whether the theft is a felony or a misdemeanor.

The Court found that, under the facts of this case, the takings constituted one act and therefore the single larceny doctrine was applicable. Webb, 971 A.2d at 961. The Court stated, "[w]e agree with our sister jurisdictions, supra, that, by "simple extension," if a defendant comes into possession of multiple items of stolen property in rapid and unbroken succession, he has committed but one criminal act, regardless of whether the items in his possession belonged to multiple owners or were the subject of multiple thefts." Id. The State failed to meet it's burden that the Defendant had taken the stolen property. Id. at 962. Nor did the State provide any evidence that the Defendant received the stolen motorcycles and the van at different times. Id. at 963. " The evidence on which the State relies fail[ed] to connect [Defendant] with the actual taking of the vehicles and provides no basis by which to conclude that appellant received the stolen items at different times." Id. As such, even if the Defendant had knowledge that the property was stolen at different times and places, as long as he received them or came into possession of them at the same time, he committed only a single act. Id.

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