Good Faith Belief in Entitlement to Property is Defense to Grand Theft in Florida

In Florida, grand theft is a felony charge that can be more or less serious depending on the nature of the charge and the amount or value of the property that was allegedly stolen. In some cases, there is a fine line between a civil dispute where one side loses out and a criminal case where one of the sides actually commits a theft. There is no objective criteria that determine whether a loss is a criminal grand theft or a civil dispute more properly addressed with a civil lawsuit. On the front end, it is up to the police and the prosecutor whether they move forward with a criminal grand theft charge. If they do, it is ultimately up to a judge or jury to decide if a criminal grand theft offense has been committed.

If the prosecutor charges a defendant with grand theft, the defendant has certain defenses available to him/her. One defense is the good faith belief that the defendant was entitled to the property taken. If the judge or jury finds that the defendant had a good faith belief that he/she was entitled to take the property, that is a complete defense to a grand theft charge. This defense is valid even if the defendant’s good faith entitlement belief was mistaken and unreasonable. This is true because in order to prove that a defendant committed the crime of grand theft, the state must prove the defendant acted with the specific intent to steal the object taken. If the defendant honestly believed he/she had a right to take the property, the state could not prove the essential element of intent to steal.

Of course, a defendant charged with grand theft cannot just tell a judge or jury that he/she thought the property was his/hers and walk away. There must be some evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, indicating the defendant had an honest belief he/she was entitled to take the property. Whether the evidence suggests the defendant thought the property was his/hers or a contract between the parties suggested the defendant could take the property, there must be something that indicates a legitimate belief in an entitlement to the property. If the defendant can establish that, a charge of grand theft will fail.

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