Stealing is a word with many meanings yet we will all attest that we know what it means. Or do we? In the opening article of this series I made reference to receiving a dozen ball point pens from the bank and asked if taking one from the bank’s customer work station was stealing. What if you read an article on the internet on how to cook a special dessert and then post “your” recipe on Facebook without crediting the source? What if while shopping at the grocery store you eat a grape in the produce department to “taste” it and never pay for it? What if, as a store clerk, you absent mindedly pocket a $20.00 bill from the till (you found it on the floor), discover it later and ignore returning it? What if you open a misdelivered package and decide to keep the sweater inside? What if you get a good leadoff from first base in baseball and get to second base before the ball arrives?
In considering the code that one will not lie, cheat or steal, it seems obvious that stealing is the act of taking property or services from another person without permission and intent to order deprive the rightful owner of it. Or is the better word “theft?” The subject and its definition become quite complicated very quickly because government entities have found it necessary to legally “define” the terms for governance and management of the population. For example, England and Wales have abandoned the term “larceny” as a synonym for theft because it was too generalized a term. Yet in the United States the terms stealing, theft and larceny are used differently by different states and interpreted differently based on the value of the property as a misdemeanor of a felony. For example, Virginia views theft of goods valued over $200.00 as grand larceny. Of course, how do you determine value?
Obviously “stealing” moves into the realm of the legal world and the judicial system for anything of value that belongs to an entity subsequently deprived of possession. So a couple of Latin terms are worth exploring: actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus means that an act has to have occurred. You took the pen from the bank counter and put it in your pocket. Mens rea means that in your mind you wanted possession of the pen for your own personal gain. If you though “I like the way this writes, I’ll just keep it,” you stole the pen. But if you believed that the bank wanted you to use the pen elsewhere as part of their marketing campaign, under the concept of mens rea it would not have been stealing.
Now consider the $20.00 bill you absent mindedly took from the till. When putting it in the cash drawer it fell to the floor and you honestly did not see it. You saw it on the floor after the cash drawer was closed and you had to wait for another customer before the drawer could be reopened. So you put it in your pocket. Under actus reus, the act was committed and the $20.00 bill was in your pocket – not stolen even though it passed from your consciousness. Later, after work, you discover the bill and reason, since nobody will know, you will just keep the money (mens rea). Did you steal the money? What if it was two $100.00 bills and you are in Virginia? You decide to keep the money. Have you committed a felony?
In these examples we have explored possibilities with “trivial” outcomes, at least until we get to the potential felony. But are they really trivial? In our day to day existence we are often faced with situations on the fulcrum of stealing. You scan your check at the restaurant and it is $2.00 less than what it should be. What do you do? You get your check at the restaurant and it is for $2.00 more than what it should be? What do you do? You get your cell phone bill and it includes new, surprise fees. What do you do? Your governmental representative gets new legislation passed that raises your taxes while lowering his or hers. Has he or she stolen from you? A third world country attacks and takes over another country because it wants the natural resources of the other country.
Till next time….