In State v. Williams, the WA Court of Appeals decided that a victim’s “rough estimate” regarding the value of stolen property of “roughly $800” will not support a conviction for possession of property in the second degree. While the owner of a chattel may testify to its market value without being qualified as an expert on valuation, the owner must testify to an adequate basis of his opinion of value to support a conviction.
FACTS & BACKGROUND
In May 2014, the Spokane Police Department received calls complaining of a man stalking through backyards in a west Spokane neighborhood. On May 6, 2014, one caller, Brad Dawson, observed the man carrying two sports duffel bags and possibly a screwdriver. Also on May 6, 2014, someone burglarized the home of David and Joan Nelson.
Joan Nelson’s brother, John Johnston, drove through the neighborhood in an attempt to apprehend the burglar. After inspecting five homes, Johnston espied a kneeling gentleman, with two duffels bags astride, employing a screwdriver to pry open a lock on a storage facility. The man fled when Johnston yelled.
Johnston called 911 and tracked the fleer as the fleer scattered from yard to yard and hid in changing locations. Johnston kept contact on his cellphone with Spokane police. Spokane police officers arrived and apprehended the burglar, Leibert Williams. Law enforcement officers found a duffel bag, a Bluetooth speaker, a laptop, running shoes, a jacket, and two rings belonging to Adam Macomber in the possession of Williams. Days earlier, Macomber had discovered the property missing from his apartment.
The State of Washington charged Leibert Williams with five crimes: (1) residential burglary, (2) second degree burglary, (3) attempted second degree burglary, (4) attempted theft of a motor vehicle, and (5) possession of stolen property in the second degree. The State added the final charge near the date of trial.
During trial, Macomber identified those items missing from his apartment. However, he only gave “rough estimates” of $800 for the value of his items.
The State presented no other testimony of the value of stolen goods. And the trial court denied a request by Leibert Williams for a lesser included offense instruction with regard to second degree possession of stolen property.
The jury found Williams guilty of first degree criminal trespass, attempted second degree burglary, vehicle prowling, and second degree possession of stolen property. The jury acquitted Williams of residential burglary.
Williams’ appeal concerns the possession of stolen property conviction.
ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION
The Court reasoned that Macomber’s testimony failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of his stolen property exceeded $750 when Macomber said, “I could give a rough estimate . . . I would say roughly $800.”
It further reasoned that “value” for the purposes of theft means the market value of the property at the time and in the approximate area of the theft. “Market value” is the price which a well-informed buyer would pay to a well-informed seller, when neither is obliged to enter into the transaction. In a prosecution, value need not be proved by direct evidence. Rather, the jury may draw reasonable inferences from the evidence, including changes in the condition of the property that affect its value.
Here, Adam Macomber testified to a “rough estimate” value of the stolen goods to be $800, a figure close to the minimum amount required to convict of $750. He listed the property taken from him, but did not describe the condition of the property when stolen. He also failed to disclose the purchase date or the purchase price of each item.
“Macomber did not testify to the basis of his opinion of value. For all we know, he used the purchase price of the goods, the replacement cost of the goods, or some intrinsic value to himself.”
With that, the Court decided that the proper remedy for the insufficiency of evidence was to dismiss the charge for possession of stolen property in the second degree. This somewhat extreme measure was partially based on the trial court’s refused to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of third degree possession: “This court lacks authority to direct the entry of judgment of the lesser included offense if the jury was not instructed on that offense.”
My opinion? Good decision. My heart goes out to the victim, however, courts need more than mere “rough estimates” when it comes to assigning a value to property. Indeed, property crimes are assigned a seriousness level – from simple misdemeanors through Class A felonies – by identifying the value of the property which was stolen or destroyed. These are not small matters. There’s a big difference between felonies and misdemeanors. Therefore, it’s extremely important to be specific and correct on these matters.