Receiving Stolen Property in California: What to Know

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If the police arrest you for receiving stolen property, you might do time in prison. Fortunately, several defenses exist where you can win an acquittal or even a dismissal.

“Receiving stolen property” is a particularly dangerous crime because under certain circumstances you can be charged with it for receiving stolen property unknowingly.

Examining California Penal Code Section 496: Receiving Stolen Property

California Penal Code section 496 criminalizes the receipt of stolen property. The prosecution must prove each of these three separate legal elements to convict:

  • You purchased, received, sold, helped to sell, concealed, or withheld property that was stolen from someone;
  • You knew that someone stole the property at the time you obtained it; and
  • You knew the property was in your possession or presence (nobody slipped it into your pocket, for example).

Since receiving stolen property is a crime, the prosecution must prove each of these three elements “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

And please note that a judge or jury can conclude that you knew the property was stolen even if nobody told you directly. 

What Makes Property “Stolen”?

For the purposes of California Penal Code section 496, property is “stolen” if someone took it by theft, robbery, or extortion. The thief may have taken the property by force, threat of force, or deception—it does not matter.

If person A takes person B’s property in a way that would prompt person B to call the police, the property in question probably qualifies as “stolen.” 

How Much You Have to Know to Be Guilty

Defending yourself against a charge of receiving stolen property by claiming that “I am incredibly naive” is dangerous at best.

If circumstances indicate that any reasonably intelligent person would realize that someone stole the property and then gave or sold it to you, a judge or jury is likely to convict you.

For instance, if you purchase fine jewelry from a person outside of a gas station restroom, a jury can assume you knew it was stolen. So be careful.  

Business Owners and the Due Diligence Requirement

Criminal liability for receiving stolen property applies more strictly to businesses that collect property than it does to ordinary citizens. For instance, pawn shops and used book store owners have the obligation to investigate suspicious transactions. The law can hold them criminally liable for failing to do so. 

Is Receiving Stolen Property a Felony?

In California, when a person receives stolen property the crime is classified as a “wobbler” offense. This means that the prosecution can charge you with either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.

Receiving stolen property is a misdemeanor if the aggregate value is no more than $950. In borderline cases, an experienced attorney can reduce your charge from a felony to a misdemeanor by determining the property’s aggregate value.

If you received stolen property valued at over $950, California can charge you with either a misdemeanor or felony. The facts and circumstances of the case and your criminal history will determine whether the prosecution charges you with a misdemeanor or a felony. The maximum period of incarceration for a felony charge is three years.


Following are some of the most common defenses to a charge of knowingly receiving stolen property:

  • Lack of knowledge—One of the most common defenses is that you did not know the property was stolen. 
  • Innocent intent—This applies if you knew the property was stolen, but you intended to return it to its rightful owner or the police immediately after obtaining it.
  • Lack of legal possession—This defense applies if you did not realize the property was in your possession (e.g., your roommate put it in your room).
  • Intoxication—Intoxication is a defense only if your intoxication prevented you from understanding the nature and consequences of your actions.
  • Theft charge—If the prosecutor has already charged you with theft for stealing the property, they cannot then also charge you with receiving stolen property for the same item.

Some of the foregoing defenses can be very difficult to accomplish without the aid of a skilled criminal defense attorney.

It Is Time to Start Fighting Back

A California criminal prosecution is a war, and it is no place for a “nice guy.” We know how to fight that war because we have done so successfully hundreds of times. Call the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, at 619-900-6902 or contact us online to schedule a free, confidential, and no-obligation consultation.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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