Skip to Main Content

What Is the Line Separating “Honest Mistake” from Misdemeanor Theft?

In its simplest form, misdemeanor theft involves taking someone else’s property without their consent. If you took the property by mistake, you can argue that as a defense at trial. But you will still need to prove that mistake was based on a “reasonable belief” you had the right to take the property in the first place.

Real Estate Agent Sentenced to Probation After Removing “Squatters” Property from Land

A recent Texas appeals court decision, Magana v. State, helps to illustrate what we are talking about. This case involved an apparent real estate scam. AHN Corporation owned a piece of land in Midland County. Unbeknownst to AHN, a scammer sold the property, ostensibly on behalf of the company. The people who “purchased” the property then set up a mobile home and moved their personal belongings into it.

The defendant in this case was a real estate agent hired by AHN to sell the property legitimately. When she arrived at the property, she saw the people who “purchased” the land from the scammer. The defendant assumed these people were illegal “squatters.” The defendant said she spoke to the squatters and advised them to contact the Texas Real Estate Commission regarding the apparent scam.

Meanwhile, the defendant placed a “no trespassing” sign on the property. Sometime later, the defendant and her husband started loading the squatters’ personal property into their own vehicles. When confronted, the defendant said AHN instructed her to “clear off the lot.” The defendant then abandoned her plans when law enforcement arrived.

But the next day, the squatters “noticed that some of their personal property was missing.” A police investigator questioned the defendant, who “admitted to taking the missing personal property … and insisted that she had every right to be on the real property,” according to court records.

Police arrested and charged the defendant with Class A misdemeanor theft. At trial, the defendant argued “she made a reasonable mistake of fact” regarding her right to take the property, and therefore was not guilty. The jury disagreed and convicted the defendant. The trial court sentenced the defendant to 12 months of probation.

On appeal, the defendant again insisted she made an honest mistake. The Court of Appeals did not see it that way. Affirming the jury’s verdict, the appeals court said there was ample evidence that the defendant’s belief was not “reasonable.” For instance, she knew about the underlying real estate scam. She also knew that just because AHN owned the land, that did not “affect any of the personal property on the premises.” There was also the fact the squatters’ property went missing the day after the defendant was confronted by law enforcement about the prior attempt. Taking all of this into consideration, the appeals court said the jury was within its discretion in finding the defendant committed theft.

Contact a Houston Misdemeanor Crimes Defense Lawyer Today

Misdemeanor theft is not something to take lightly. If you are charged with theft or any similar misdemeanor offense, you need to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the legal system. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today if you need to speak with an attorney right away. Call (281) 280-0100