Defense of Mistake to Massachusetts Theft Crime Charges

In Commonwealth v. Tremblay, the defendant was accused and convicted of breaking and entering while intending to commit misdemeanor larceny and a fifth offense of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence. He appealed on the basis that the trial judge made a mistake in limiting his cross-examination of a witness about an issue that was key to his defense.

At trial, the defendant argued he’d made a factual mistake about whether he was permitted to go onto the property of his dead uncle’s neighbor, break a lock, and take a model airplane. He tried to present evidence to this effect. However, the trial judge wouldn’t allow the defendant to question the neighbor about the defendant’s father’s challenge to the uncle’s will, which gave the neighbor the contents of the shed, including the model airplane. The defense attorney claimed that if the neighbor admitted that the ownership of the model airplane was disputed by the defendant’s family, it would have given the defendant more credibility on the question of whether he’d made an honest mistake of fact about his right to go onto the property and take the airplane model.

The appellate court explained that the element of intent to steal, which is required to convict someone of larceny, is negated if the defendant can show he had an honest, even if mistaken, belief he was allowed to take the property at issue. The court explained that testimony about the will dispute was relevant, and the judge should have allowed some cross-examination of the neighbor on whether there was a will dispute.

In spite of this finding, the appellate court held that the neighbor’s responses to such questions wouldn’t have had a substantial effect on the trial outcome, so excluding this evidence didn’t prejudice the defendant from being able to present a full defense. Even if the neighbor had confirmed that there was a will dispute, this confirmation would have been only slightly more proof than the evidence the defendant already had.

An eyewitness had already testified that the defendant believed he was allowed to be on the property because his family owned the property. The officer who arrested the defendant also testified about this belief, including the ongoing property dispute. The neighbor even testified that the defendant had told him that since his family owned the land, he thought he was entitled to be on the land.

The court explained that the jury could not with good sense believe that the defendant honestly believed he was entitled to be there. It noted that a defendant’s unreasonable belief could be sufficient, if it’s honest. But just how unreasonable the belief is may be considered to determine whether the defendant has an honest belief or has simply made up a justification for larceny.

In this case, there was evidence to show that the defendant’s belief wasn’t honest. Nothing showed that the property was his or that someone had given him permission to break into a locked shed or remove the model airplane. His sole claim to the property was based on the history of the property. The dispute about which he wanted to present evidence tended to show that the defendant’s father, but not the defendant, had a claim to the property only if the dispute went his way.

The defendant also argued on appeal that the trial judge’s bar about cross-examining on the will dispute also prejudiced his OUI defense. He argued that the neighbor’s response could undermine earlier testimony that supported the OUI charge. The court found this claim was waived. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s judgments.

If you are charged with a theft crime in Massachusetts, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss the criminal charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or contact us through this website.

More Blog Posts:

Assault and Battery Causing Serious Injury in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published January 14, 2015

Receiving Stolen Property in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 15, 2014

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