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Saturday, October 06, 2012

Whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime of receiving stolen property, it must prove that the property in question was actually stolen. State of New Jersey v. Richard Hodde (A-14-03)181 N.J. 375, 858 A.2d 112.

Whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime of receiving stolen property, it must prove that the property in question was actually stolen.  State of New Jersey v. Richard Hodde (A-14-03)181 N.J. 375, 858 A.2d 112. 
Argued March 2, 2004 -- Decided September 27, 2004
ZAZZALI, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

    The issue before the Court is whether the defendant, Richard Hodde, may be convicted of receiving stolen property under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a and N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2)(b) when the property is not proven to be stolen.

    On the morning of September 18, 1999, employees of Penske Truck leasing in Pottsville, Pennsylvania noticed that a truck was missing from the Penske lot. Suspecting that the vehicle had been stolen, they contacted police who prepared an “all police broadcast” that was received by the New Jersey State Police on September 20, 1999. 
    New Jersey State Troopers Beatrice and Warne traveled to a truck stop off of Route 78 in Hunterdon County to search for the stolen vehicle. While there, they observed a truck matching the description given on the police broadcast. Through a computer check of the license, the troopers confirmed that it in fact was the truck that had been stolen from the Penske lot in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Trooper Beatrice approached the truck and observed Hodde in a sleeping bag in the rear compartment of the cab. The troopers unsuccessfully attempted to awaken Hodde for five or ten minutes. Eventually, Trooper Beatrice observed the passenger-side door open and Hodde exit the cab of the truck. After asking Hodde to show his hands, the troopers handcuffed and arrested Hodde.
    Hodde questioned why he was being arrested and was told that the vehicle had been reported stolen in Pennsylvania. Hodde explained to the troopers that the vehicle was just “overdue” as a result of a fight he had had with his boss and that the stolen-vehicle report “was just a big misunderstanding.” Although Hodde did not have any keys in his possession, the troopers found a set of keys in the ignition. The troopers observed no evidence of forced entry nor did they find any tools or objects indicating that Hodde had broken into the vehicle. Hodde had a Pennsylvania commercial truck driver’s license but the troopers did not observe him driving the truck.
    A Hunterdon County grand jury indicted Hodde on one count of third-degree theft by receiving stolen property contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a, and, because a motor vehicle was involved, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2)(b). Hodde pleaded not guilty and the matter proceeded to trial.
    In addition to the testimony of Troopers Beatrice and Warne, the State presented the manager of the truck-leasing facility, Edwin Beadle, as a witness. Beadle testified that the truck in question, along with five others, was leased to the Phillip VanHeusen Company (VanHeusen). VanHeusen hires its own drivers, who access the trucks directly from the Penske lot. Beadle explained that in order to prevent the driver from locking himself out of a truck, each driver keeps a key on his person while another key remains in the ignition of each truck, even when parked in the Penske lot. Generally familiar with VanHeusen’s drivers, Beadle testified not only that he did not recognize Hodde as one of the VanHeusen drivers but that he had never seen Hodde before. Beadle further testified that the truck had been driven 1200 miles since it was last logged in, that a small vent-window on the passenger-side door had been damaged, and that he believed Hodde gained access to the truck through that broken window. 
    At the conclusion of the trial, the judge instructed the jurors that they only had to find that Hodde believed the vehicle was stolen or probably had been stolen. After receiving the charge, the jury convicted Hodde. Thereafter, the trial court granted the State’s motion for an extended sentence, sentencing Hodde to a seven-year prison term. 
    Hodde appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing for the first time that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that the State did not have to prove that the truck actually had been stolen. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, finding no plain error in the court’s jury charge on receiving stolen property and no merit to Hodde’s remaining claims of error.
    The Supreme Court granted certification.
HELD: Whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime of receiving stolen property, it must prove that the property in question was actually stolen.
1. When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, and susceptible of only one interpretation, courts should apply that statute as written without looking to extrinsic evidence. However, statutory provisions cannot be read in isolation, they must be construed in concert with other legislative pronouncements on the same subject matter. (Pp. 5-7)
2. Although language in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a suggests that belief alone will suffice and that the property need not actually be stolen, those are not the Legislature’s only words on this subject. The Code of Criminal Justice (Code) organizes all provisions concerning theft and theft-related offenses into a single chapter and a common set of definitions applies to all those offenses, which are graded collectively in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2. N.J.S.A. 2C:20-(2)(b)expressly requires that the property be stolen. (Pp. 7-8)
3. Viewing the grading provisions more broadly and in conjunction with N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7, the Court concludes that whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime of receiving stolen property, it must prove that the property in question was actually stolen. To hold otherwise would lead to illogical results. By repeatedly using the phrase, “the property stolen,” in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2), the Legislature evinced an intent that a person only could be found guilty of receiving stolen property if the property was actually stolen. (Pp. 8-11)
4. The title of the statute also provides guidance. The title “Receiving stolen property,” makes plain that the law is concerned with property that has been the product of theft. Moreover, an interpretation requiring that the property actually be stolen comports with common sense. The language in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7 that speaks to the actor’s knowledge that the property is, or belief that it probably is, stolen refers to the degree of knowledge necessary for the crime. It does not address the requirement that the property itself possess the characteristic of being stolen. (Pp.11-13)
5. In this case, the trial court’s instruction to the jury amounted to plain error. The trial court not only failed to instruct the jury of the need to find that the truck had been stolen, it expressly informed the jury that the State did not have the burden to prove that fact, thereby misinforming the jury about the elements of the crime. Thus, Hodde’s conviction must be reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. In view of its decision, the Court need not address Hodde’s other claims of error. (Pp. 13-15)