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A Guide to Handling Stolen Goods Defences

Learn more about defences that can be used for the offence of Handling Stolen Goods

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If you have been charged with handling stolen goods, you are probably feeling stressed and afraid. You could be wondering what the prosecution will need to prove in order to convict you at trial, and whether you will go to prison. Perhaps you are wondering whether your behaviour was actually against the law, or if there may be a valid defence available to you. This article provides an overview of the offence of handling stolen goods and identifies types of evidence that the prosecution may seek to use against you. It further considers the maximum sentence for this offence and the defences you may be able to rely upon in court to justify your actions (resulting in a shorter sentence, or no sentence at all).

An overview of handling stolen goods offences

Handling stolen goods encompasses various different activities, all of which include an element of dishonesty. These include: receiving stolen goods, keeping or removing stolen goods, providing stolen goods to another person for the benefit of someone else, or arranging for any of these activities to occur. Your charge sheet should specify the type of handling that you are alleged to have committed. The offence of handling stolen goods is set out in Section 22 of the Theft Act 1968.

The prosecution will need to prove that you knew or believed the goods to be stolen at the time of the activity, and that you received them dishonestly. If you were the person who stole the goods, you can only be charged with theft for those goods, you cannot also be charged with handling them. The definition of stolen goods includes goods that are obtained through fraud. It also includes money obtained through the dishonest sale of stolen goods. However, if you purchase an item in good faith, not knowing that it is stolen, and then subsequently sell it on, the cash that you receive will not be considered stolen goods.

What kind of evidence is used in handling stolen goods cases?

The type of evidence that will be used by the prosecution depends on the type of stolen goods that it is alleged that you have handled. For example, if it is stolen sportswear, the police will probably have seized the goods and their being found in your possession might be used as evidence. The prosecution may also seek to link you with the goods by relying on biometric information such as your DNA and fingerprints.

For context into the crime, the prosecution may seek to prove that you had no financial means to pay for the goods and accordingly may try to access to your banking and credit records. Large sums of cash found in your home may also be seized as evidence of the benefit you obtained through handling the goods. Testimony from the victim, and CCTV footage showing that the goods were stolen could also be important evidence. Your own testimony, should you choose to give it, is likely to be important in establishing whether you acted dishonestly and what you knew about the goods at the time that you handled them.

What is the maximum sentence for handling stolen goods?

Handling stolen goods is an either way offence. This means that it may be tried either in the Magistrates Court, or the Crown Court. The law says that the maximum sentence for handling stolen goods is 14 years’ imprisonment. However, according to current sentencing council guidelines, the offence range falls between discharge (i.e. no prison time at all) and 8 years of imprisonment. When deciding on a sentence, the court will mainly consider the culpability (blameworthiness) of the defendant and the harm caused to the victim.

Examples of factors that indicate a high culpability include a significant level of planning and committing a sophisticated crime (for example, one that requires professional knowledge). You will be less culpable if, for example, you had a limited role in the offence or were pressured into becoming involved by someone else (for example, if they threatened to hurt you if you did not help them).

For the purpose of sentencing, ‘harm’ can be understood as financial harm or any other significant harm caused to the victim, such as if the items stolen were of significant sentimental or other value to the victim. For example, greater harm will be seen if jewellery stole belonged to a deceased relative. Similarly, the inconvenience caused by metal theft from train lines or other infrastructure can be taken into account.

Detailed sentencing guidelines can be found here.

What are the applicable handling stolen goods defences?

Whether you have a valid defence depends on the facts of your case, and for that reason you should always consult a solicitor for advice. That said, a common defence to handling stolen goods is a lack of dishonesty.

Lack of dishonesty

You can rely upon this defence if you did perform the act, but your case is that your actions were not dishonest. Perhaps the goods did come into your possession, but you were not aware that they were stolen and therefore you believed that you were participating in a legitimate business transaction. If this is the case, then you may be able to argue that you did not act dishonestly.

Deciding if a defendant acted dishonestly can often be the most difficult part of a case for the court. Indeed, for a long time, there have been legal debates about dishonesty among lawyers. For now, at least, the courts consider (a) what you knew of the facts at the time of the offence and (b) whether your behaviour would be considered ‘dishonest’ by the standards of ordinary people.

Accordingly, when the court is assessing whether you acted dishonestly, it will first consider what you knew about the goods at the time of the offence. For example, did you know where they came from and how they were obtained? The court will then assess whether your behaviour would be considered to be dishonest by the standards of ordinary people, which may take into account factors like your age, educational background, and so on.

General defences

If the lack of dishonesty defence does not apply, you may be able to rely on one of the following general defences, which relate more to you as a person rather than what you allegedly did:

  • Prevention of crime or to conduct a lawful arrest: You can justify your actions in the eyes of the law if you can show your actions were undertaken in order to prevent crime or to conduct a lawful arrest. For example, for a charge of possession of stolen goods, you may be able to defend yourself on the basis that you had the goods in your possession in order to hand them into the police, or to return them to their owner.
  • Automatism: If you were not aware of your actions when committing the offence you may be able to rely upon the defence of automatism. This defence only applies in rare circumstances. Generally, this defence does not apply if you were under the voluntary influence of alcohol or illicit drugs.
  • Insanity: This defence relates to your mental health at the time that the offence was committed. It is not enough to show that you had mental health issues. You must be able to show that due to the mental health issues, you did not understand that what you were doing was wrong. If the court finds that you lacked the ability to reason such that you did not know that the act that you were doing was against the law, you may be acquitted on the grounds of insanity. In these circumstances, you may be detained if your behaviour poses a risk to people around you.
  • Mistake: If you were mistaken as to certain facts and would not have committed the offence if you had known otherwise, you may be able to rely on mistake. In relation to the offence of handling stolen goods, this could apply if you were mistaken as to the ownership of the goods or if you were mistaken in respect of how they were obtained.
  • Duress: This is where you were forced by a person to commit an offence. The court will consider whether you reasonably feared death or serious injury if you did not commit the act, and whether a reasonable person in your situation would have shared those fears and responded in the same way. This defence could apply if you were forced or pressurized into handling stolen goods, and you feared really serious consequences if you did not comply.
  • Necessity: Similar to duress, this is where you were forced by a set of circumstances to commit an offence. You will need to show that you reasonably believed that committing the crime was necessary in order to prevent harm or serious injury to yourself or another person.

What will a successful defence achieve?

A successful defence may lead to you being acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge. Defences are a complex area of law, so make sure you seek the advice of a qualified solicitor before you decide on a defence strategy.

How to get help with handling stolen goods offences?

If you or someone you care about has been accused of handling stolen goods, contact Stuart Miller Solicitors today. Our highly qualified team of criminal defence solicitors will be able to provide you with robust advice and guidance and will listen carefully and without judgement as to all facets of your case. To arrange a friendly no-obligation consultation, please get in touch.

(This page was last updated on November 22, 2023.)


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