A Porter County man convicted of auto theft argued that his failure to return a rental car was a civil case and misunderstanding with the rental company, but the Court of Appeals upheld his Class D felony conviction.
Jonathan Grott signed a rental agreement with Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Valparaiso on Feb. 11, 2013. His original contract stated he was only to have the Cadillac for two days, but he continued to rent it through April 5, 2013. Enterprise charged him nearly $5,000 for that 53-day period. On April 5, he signed a new contract that stated he was to return the vehicle April 12. But after a back and forth with the company disputing the charges, Grott never returned the vehicle.
Enterprise eventually called police, which located the vehicle in Grott’s driveway. It was towed May 1, and Grott was charged with auto theft five days later. A jury found him guilty in April 2014.
There has not been an Indiana case similar to the details of this one, noted Judge John Baker in Jonathan Grott, Sr. v. State of Indiana, 64A04-1408-CR-395, so the judges looked to other jurisdictions for guidance.
“Appellate courts of other states have determined that ‘there must be sufficient evidence of a specified deadline for return to support conviction of theft by a bailee of a rental car.’ We agree with this proposition,” Baker wrote. “In this case, we acknowledge the somewhat open-ended nature of Grott’s contract and the fact that there is nothing in the record indicating that a return date was agreed to after Grott’s final payment. However, we still find that the jury had sufficient evidence that the parties had agreed to a deadline for the return of the Cadillac.”
“There is no serious dispute that Grott had direct and physical control over the vehicle at the relevant times; indeed, his whole argument on this issue is simply that Enterprise could have taken it out of his possession whenever it wanted to do so. But no one else was physically in possession of the vehicle while Grott was. That Enterprise had the authority to repossess the vehicle does not mean that Grott was not in possession of it. Thus, Grott had actual possession of the vehicle, and his argument to the contrary is without merit,” Baker wrote.