Earlier this week, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a ruling that packed a powerful impact – it makes most theft offenses misdemeanors rather than felonies. The far-reaching decision may impact cases throughout the state in which individuals have been charged with or convicted of certain theft crimes.
The decision stems from State v. Bazell, a burglary case involving a woman convicted of multiple felonies for theft of a firearm and other property. In the case, the court ruled the woman’s firearm felonies should be reduced to misdemeanors due to problematic wording in a section of Missouri’s criminal code. According to the court, the language is not applicable to the state’s definition of stealing.
The decision specifically focuses on two conflicting passages in the code:
- § 570.030.1 – Subparagraph 1 defines stealing as “appropriat[ing] property or services of another with the purpose to deprive him or her thereof, either without his consent or by means of deceit or coercion.”
- § 570.030.3 – Subparagraph 3, which was added as an enhancement to the code in 2002, classifies certain types of crimes as Class C felonies which relate to “any offense in which the value of property or services is an element.”
As cited in the opinion, courts must apply the plain meaning of the law when the words are clear. The problem with subparagraph 3 as it written, is that enhancement is applied in cases “in which the value of the property or services is an element,” which is not how Missouri defines stealing in subparagraph 1.
According to the court, the value of property or services stolen is not an element of stealing. Therefore, subparagraph 3, which focuses on how enhancements should be applied to certain theft crimes, is not relevant to stealing offenses. Because the section is not relevant, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the woman’s convictions for theft of a firearm could not be enhanced to felonies and must be classified as misdemeanors.
The decision could have far-reaching implications in similar cases, including:
- Individuals convicted of certain felony theft crimes may be able to have their convictions reduced to misdemeanors if the crimes occurred after 2002, when the problematic language was added.
- Defendants currently facing charges for theft crimes impacted by the ruling may be charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies.
- People appealing applicable felony convictions can use the ruling in their arguments.
- While there are a number of theft crimes impacted by the ruling – including theft of explosives, credit cards, vehicles, and more – it does not apply to all theft crimes, including cases involving a third offense.
The decision is an exceptional exercise in how criminal law is not always as rigid as it may seem. As it highlights the power and scope of written law, it also reveals that this power can be augmented by the fluidity of how we interpret and apply its meaning. Because of this decision, the way courts handle these cases will now change, and this change will remain until a new law takes effect, or a new precedent set.
It’s a great reminder that law is constantly evolving and that it is not infallible – it can be challenged. It can also serve as a reminder about the importance of proofreading.
As courts and attorneys prepare to deal with the impact of this decision, a fix is already in the works as part of a sweeping rewrite of the state’s criminal code, which removes the section at issue. Crimes that were impacted will once again be felonies when the new criminal law takes effect on January 1, 2017.
If you or someone you love have been convicted of a felony theft crime, or if charges are currently pending, our team is available to help! Our attorneys can review your case, discuss your rights and how the recent ruling may apply, and formulate the best course of action.
Contact us today for a FREE consultation!