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State of Idaho v. William Lynn Bennett

December 7, 2010

STATE OF IDAHO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WILLIAM LYNN BENNETT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Ada County. Hon. Michael R. McLaughlin, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burdick, Justice

Boise, August 2010 Term 2010 Opinion No. 129

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

Judgment of conviction for grand theft and persistent violator enhancement, vacated.

Appellant William Lynn Bennett was convicted of grand theft and sentenced to eight years, with one-and-a-half years fixed. The court imposed a concurrent sentence of the same duration for a persistent violator enhancement. This case concerns the element of ownership in a charge of theft pursuant to I.C. § 18-2403(1) where a sale of goods is involved. We conclude that a seller of goods who has delivered the goods to the buyer, but has not yet been paid in full and does not have a security interest, is not an owner of the goods for the purposes of I.C. § 18-2403(1). We vacate.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This case arose out of Bennett's purchase of a travel trailer from John LeFave. When Bennett moved out of state and took the trailer with him without making all the payments, LeFave reported the trailer missing and a criminal case ensued. At trial, the State established that Bennett entered into a verbal agreement with LeFave in October 2004 to purchase LeFave's travel trailer.*fn1 It was agreed that LeFave would take the trailer to the property of Carolynn Ellinger (an acquaintance of Bennett), where Bennett was staying, and that Bennett would make payments to LeFave until the full purchase price had been paid.

LeFave testified that the parties had not agreed to a payment structure but that he had told Bennett that he would take a down payment and they "would go from there and go to a finance company and get it straightened out." LeFave testified that under the terms of the agreement, once Bennett finished paying for the trailer, Bennett would receive the title. LeFave testified that when he delivered the trailer at Ellinger's property he put a chain on it and a tongue and hitch lock system to keep it from being moved because Bennett did not have permission to move the trailer until it had been paid for in full. LeFave testified that he told Bennett that if the trailer needed to be moved, LeFave would personally move it "so [he] would know where it was at all times." However, Bennett testified that he was free to move the trailer and that it was not locked. Ellinger testified that the trailer was chained to the fence but was not locked.*fn2

Bennett made at least one payment toward the purchase price,*fn3 but then LeFave learned that the trailer had been moved. Bennett stated that he informed LeFave that he would be moving and provided LeFave with his new address. LeFave testified that Bennett moved the trailer without permission or notice. After learning that the trailer had been moved, LeFave went to Ellinger's property to confirm that it was missing and discovered that the lock had been removed and that part of the lock system had been left on the ground. However, Ellinger testified that she did not see a lock left behind when Bennett moved the trailer.

LeFave testified that Bennett called him a few months later to tell him he had moved the trailer to Washington. During that call, Bennett told LeFave to send him the title to the trailer and then Bennett would send LeFave $1000 but that if LeFave involved the police Bennett would burn the trailer. After contacting law enforcement, LeFave sent a certified letter to the address Bennett had given him on the phone, advising Bennett that LeFave was going to report the trailer as stolen and that if Bennett had any questions, he should contact the Boise Police Department. The letter was eventually returned as undelivered.*fn4

In an effort to locate the trailer, LeFave drove to Washington to the address Bennett had given him. He discovered that both Bennett and the trailer were no longer at that location, and reported the theft of the trailer to law enforcement. At the time of trial, LeFave had received neither further payment nor a return of the trailer from Bennett.

Bennett was charged with grand theft under I.C. §§ 18-2403(1) and 18-2407(1)(b) and with being a persistent violator under I.C. § 19-2514. A jury found Bennett guilty of grand theft, and Bennett subsequently pled guilty to the persistent violator allegation. He filed a motion for judgment of acquittal, claiming that "[t]he inculpatory evidence presented on the material element of value was so insubstantial that jurors could not help but have a reasonable doubt as to the proof of that element." The district court denied the motion, entered a judgment of conviction and imposed a unified eight-year sentence with one-and-a-half years determinate for the grand theft conviction. The court also imposed an identical sentence for the persistent violator enhancement to run concurrently. Although there was substantial conflicting testimony, the jury found that the trailer involved was valued at over $1000. The defense counsel at trial made a post-judgment motion to dismiss the case based upon the inadequacy of the valuation of the trailer. The district court denied the motion, and for purposes of this opinion this Court will not address that issue.

II. ANALYSIS

This decision hinges on the definition of "owner" in I.C. § 18-2402(6). Bennett was charged with a violation of I.C. § 18-2403(1). For Bennett to be guilty, LeFave must have been the "owner" of the trailer. Idaho Code § 18-2403(1) states: "A person steals property and commits theft when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner thereof." (Emphasis added). Idaho Code § 18-2402(6) defines "owner" as "any person who has a right to possession thereof superior to that of the taker, obtainer or withholder." Thus, in this case, the State had ...


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