Possession of stolen property, in and by itself, is not sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the person in possession of the stolen property is guilty of theft.. although it is close.  Addressing this specific issue, the Wyoming Supreme Court recently stated that “the most significant and material evidence of a defendant’s guilt is his possession of the stolen property.  Possession is a strong circumstance tending to show guilt and only slight corroborative evidence of other inculpatory circumstances is required” to support a conviction of theft. Pena v. State, 2015 WY 149.

In the Pena case, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of corroborating evidence sufficient to support a conviction.  However, within a jury instruction utilized in the case, lies an issue that was not addressed by the court and which may have resulted in an unconstitutional, impermissible situation.

The instruction stated:

possession of recently stolen property, if not satisfactorily explained is ordinarily a circumstance from which the jury may reasonably draw the inference and find, in the light of surrounding circumstances shown by the evidence in the case, that the person in possession knew the property had been stolen, and is also a circumstance from which the jury may reasonably draw the inference that the person in possession not only knew it was stolen property, but also participated in some way in the theft of the property.

A defendant is never required to prove his innocence, the burden is always on the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I believe this instruction improperly placed a burden on the defendant to “satisfactorily explain” his possession of the property.

An attorney must carefully examine each and every jury instruction to ensure that each instruction accurately states the law and protects the rights and interests of the defendant.

Kenneth DeCock
Attorney at Law

Disclaimer:As of this date, 12/19/15, all information within this article is accurate and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not rely on this information as it is possible for laws to change.