Police often get reports from homeowners that they hired a contractor to do work on their homes, paid the contractor an initial fee to do the work and then the contractor quit the job without completing the work. Sometimes, the police will ignore the complaint and tell the homeowner that it is a civil matter that must be handled with a lawsuit. Other times, the police will pursue the complaint and arrest the contractor for grand theft.
These contractor disputes can be a misunderstanding as to the cost of the work and materials or some other honest mistake that has delayed or inhibited the work that was promised. In those cases, a grand theft charge is not appropriate. Other times, a contractor will take a person’s money, promise to do the work and just not do it. These cases can be the basis for a legitimate grand theft charge.
In a recent grand theft case involving a contractor near Jacksonville, Florida, the homeowner hired the contractor to replace her cabinets. They agreed on the plans, and the homeowner paid him $4,000 for the work. The contractor made promises about the work he would do and that he would get the materials and start promptly. After she paid him, the contractor was difficult to get in touch with, did not come by the house often and only worked on the project periodically. After a couple of weeks, the contractor never returned to the house to finish the work. She tried to contact him by letter and email, but he did not respond. Police looked into the contractor’s bank records which showed that he deposited the homeowner’s check and then wrote some checks for matters unrelated to the work to be done on her house.
The contractor was charged with grand theft. At the trial, he testified that he did a lot of work preparing for the job with the homeowner and created a detailed proposal that both agreed to. He also testified that the homeowner made some changes to the home which made his job more difficult and were not contemplated in the plans.
The appellate court reversed the grand theft conviction. The court reasoned that because the contractor did a lot of work before the agreement and did some work after the agreement, there was insufficient evidence that he intended to steal the money from the homeowner. Instead, it appeared to the court to be a situation where the contractor just did not finish the work for non-criminal reasons. As a result, like many cases involving a contract and failure to perform, it was more appropriately handled in civil court.
In grand theft cases involving a contractor or other contract scenario, there is a fine line between one party breaching the contract for any number of reasons and one party actually committing a crime. If the state does choose to pursue a criminal case, they must prove that the contractor intended to steal the money. Proving that the work was never completed is not sufficient.