So many things can go wrong when a person is found to be in possession of stolen property. This is because the law punishes not only the thief but any person who aids the thief either by purchasing the stolen items or by keeping them safe for the alleged thief. This is aimed at discouraging stealing.
One of the things that can go wrong when a person is found to be in possession of stolen goods is that such a person may be presumed to be the thief. In law, this is called the Doctrine of Recent Possession. The doctrine runs thus: “the man who is in possession of stolen goods soon after the theft is either the thief or is a receiver of stolen goods knowing them to have been stolen unless he gives proper account on how he came into possession of the goods.”
However, before a person is presumed to be the thief, the proximity of the time of the possession to the theft would be considered. If a person is found to be in possession of stolen property soon after a theft or an armed robbery is reported, the law would most likely presume such a person to be the thief unless there exists a logical and compelling explanation for being in possession of the stolen property. Where no explanation is given as to how a person came to be in possession of stolen property, or where the explanation given is untrue, then such a person would be presumed to be the thief.
A person who is presumed to be a thief or an armed robber for being in possession of stolen property would bear the punishment prescribed by law for stealing or armed robbery.
A person found to be in possession of stolen property may also be charged with the offence of receiving stolen property. The four elements required to be proved before a person can be convicted for receiving stolen property are:
- That the property in question is stolen property;
- That the accused received or retained such property;
- That he did so dishonestly;
- That he knew or had reason to believe that the property was stolen property.
The law takes cognisance of the fact that exchange of goods is part of commercial activity. Thus, in determining if a person is guilty of receiving stolen property, the courts will usually be guided by the consideration of whether a person knew or ought reasonably to have known that the property was dishonestly obtained or stolen. The following factors will therefore be considered: the manner of receipt or delivery of the goods/ property allegedly stolen, the time of delivery or purchase of the goods/property and the price paid for the goods/property.
Thus, where the transaction is carried out in a clandestine or furtive atmosphere and where the articles involved in the transaction are sold way below the regular market price, the chances are that there is something unwholesome or fishy going on.
The offence of receiving stolen property may be punishable with fourteen years imprisonment, seven years imprisonment or life imprisonment depending on the item stolen or the circumstances of the case.
A person may also be charged with the offence of being in possession or having under his control anything reasonably suspected of having been stolen or unlawfully obtained where he fails to give a satisfactory account of how he came by such thing. This offence is punishable with imprisonment for six months.
The courts have held that stolen property consists of property obtained through extortion, robbery, criminal misappropriation, criminal breach of trust and money dishonestly withdrawn from a wrongful credit.
SAFEGUARDS AGAINST PURCHASING STOLEN GOODS
- The purchaser of an item said to be stolen may be exonerated if he is able to identify the person that sold to him and the place of business of the seller. It is therefore advisable to buy goods in open markets (Supermarkets, marts e.t.c ). It is best to avoid purchasing goods from hawkers and people selling on the highways. This is because, should there be any issue as regards the item purchased, you might not be able to trace the seller. It would be difficult to explain that you bought the goods not knowing that they were stolen.When goods are bought in open market, it could also support a purchaser’s defence that he did not know the purchased item was stolen, since it was bought in open market in accordance with the regular custom of buying and selling in that market.
- Endeavour to always obtain receipts for items purchased. This is particularly very important when items are purchased from individuals, especially strangers or persons whom you are not familiar with.
- When a person who is offering an item for sale is not a dealer of the item he is offering for sale, it is prudent to ask questions as to how he came by the goods he is offering for sale and why he wants to sell. If the answers provided are not satisfactory, it is best not to purchase the goods.
- The price at which an item is purchased is very crucial, thus, it is important to conduct a market survey in order to have an idea of the market value of the goods which you seek to buy. If the price at which you are being offered the goods is ridiculously lower than the market price, then you have to be on your guard and inquire as to why that is so.
- As much as is practicable, purchase of goods should be during the day and in an open manner, not in some covert manner.