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State can’t prove teen stole television he owned with his mother

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In an issue of first impression involving the statutes defining Class D felony theft, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a teen’s adjudication of theft for removing a television that he and his mother purchased together from his mother’s home over her objection.

Mother M.A. put $185 and son Z.A. contributed $15 toward the purchase of a television that they considered jointly owned. One day, Z.A. decided to take the television from his mother’s house. She told him not to, but he did it, so she called police to report it as a theft.

Z.A. was charged with and adjudicated as committing Class D felony theft if committed by an adult. To prove theft, the state had to prove that Z.A. knowingly or intentionally exerted unauthorized control over the property of another person, with intent to deprive the other person of any part of its value or use. Indiana Code 35-31.5-2-253(b) provides that property is that “of another person” if the other person has a possessory or proprietary interest in it, even if an accused person also has an interest in that property.

The application of these statutes for a prosecution of theft of shared property is a question of first impression for the appellate court.

The state did not present any evidence that M.A. believed she had a controlling interest in the television or that the T.V. was to remain at her house at all times, the judges held in Z.A. v. State of Indiana, 49A02-1311-JV-973. The state argued since the mother paid 93 percent of the purchase price for the television, she had a controlling interest in it.

“And the State’s reading of the relevant statutes is equally applicable between M.A. and Z.A. That is, the evidence shows that M.A. denied Z.A. his rights to the shared property just as much as Z.A. denied M.A. her rights. If the State’s argument on appeal is correct, then no matter what happened in light of the disagreement, someone committed a theft. That does not strike this court as a tenable interpretation of our criminal code. The legislature did not intend to criminalize bona fide contract disputes,” Judge Edward Najam wrote in reversing Z.A.’s adjudication.

“Here, where the jointly owned tangible personal property is indivisible, there is no agreement between the co-owners on the right to use the property, and the ownership is not exclusive, we cannot say that the State has proven the unauthorized control element of theft beyond a reasonable doubt.”
 

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