Theft (also known as stealing) is, in general, the wrongful taking of someone else's property without that person's willful consent. In law, it is usually the broadest term for a crime against property. It is a general term that encompasses offences such as burglary, embezzlement, larceny, looting, robbery, trespassing, shoplifting, intrusion, fraud (theft by deception), and sometimes criminal conversion. Legally, theft is generally considered to be synonymous with larceny.

In the common law, theft is usually defined as the unauthorised taking or use of someone else's property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner or the person with rightful possession of that property or its use.

As with other common law crimes, it is composed of two elements, the actus reus — the unauthorized taking or use — and the intent to deprive — the mens rea. Thus if one goes to a restaurant and by accident one takes someone else's hat or scarf instead of one's own hat or scarf, one has deprived someone of the use of their property and has taken the other person's property in an unauthorized manner, but without the intent to deprive the person (hum, this is a much nicer scarf than mine or he'll never notice the spot on the hat until he gets home) there is no criminal act (actus reus) and thus no crime. Note that there may be civil liability, by depriving someone of their property you may be liable for damages in a civil court, but without proof of your intent to deprive, no criminal act has occurred. In other words there must be an element of dishonesty which may be revealed from the words or actions of the perpetrator.

In certain jurisdictions theft, has been legally defined in various ways thus making it a statutory offence. For example, in England and Wales, the Theft Act 1968 defines it as: "...the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other (the owner or person in lawful possession) of it."

In the case of the example given above within the terms of English & Welsh law the person acquiring the hat would, prima facie, be guilty of the criminal offence of theft for the following reasons.

Within the terms of the offence there is no requirement that the necessary elements be executed in chronological order. Although there is every indication that the initial appropriation lacked any mens rea - and in this case that means dishonesty - the point at which the decision was made to keep it demonstrates an assumption of the rights of ownership and given the insight into the appropriator's thinking we can clearly see the necessary element of dishonest intention. There is also clear evidence in respect of the civil tort of conversion.

The elements of the offence are set out in the initial sections of the Act. The element of belonging to another can also create problems from time to time. Within the terms of case law it is even possible to steal your own property.

The case of R. -v- Turner (No 2) 1971 (1 WLR 901) was brought to the Court of Appeal in respect of a case in which a car owner had removed his own car from the forecourt of a garage where it was being repaired one night intending to avoid paying the bill. It was held that whilst the owner had removed the car, for the purposes of the offence the garage had a "proprietory right or interest" in it and that it therefore did belong to another. Turner had therefore been properly convicted of theft and the appeal was dismissed.

See also

es:Robo pl:Kradzież simple:Theft fi:Varkaus (oikeustiede) sv:St÷ld


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