Pennsylvania College Student Defense: Theft

College can be a great time of life, and one of the unique features of attending one of Pennsylvania's many fine colleges or universities is the opportunity to become close to many people around your age, to share classes, experiences, school facilities, and even living quarters with them. But, people being people, sometimes things go wrong. Things go missing. Sometimes they're your things, sometimes they're someone else's. Whether it's a misplaced wallet or student ID card, a set of keys left on the dresser of your dorm room, a watch from the locker at the rec center that you didn't close all the way, or your laptop from your table at Starbucks when your order was called, it's always a pain to lose your stuff and sometimes it's the result of a crime.

Pennsylvania's Laws Against Theft

As with most states, Pennsylvania has a range of laws that criminalize theft. The law generally defines theft as depriving someone of their property. “Deprive” is defined as “To withhold property of another permanently or for so extended a period as to appropriate a major portion of its economic value, or with intent to restore only upon payment of reward or other compensation.” It also is defined as disposing of the stolen property “so as to make it unlikely that the owner will recover it.”

There are more than a dozen anti-theft laws in Pennsylvania, ranging from “Theft by unlawful taking or disposition,” to theft by deception or extortion, to retail theft, to library theft, to theft from a motor vehicle, to theft OF a motor vehicle (called “unauthorized use”), to the odd “Theft of unpublished dramas and musical compositions.”

Where college students are concerned, typical theft charges are for theft by unlawful taking or disposition (18 Pa. Con. § 3921); retail theft (18 Pa. Con. § 3929); library theft (18 Pa. Con. § 3929.1); theft of lost property (18 Pa. Con. § 3924); and theft of services (18 Pa. Con. § 3926).

“Theft by unlawful taking” is sort of a catch-all statute. It covers taking any “movable property of another” with the intent to deprive the other person of that property. For example, removing a lawn gnome from someone's yard while on your way back to the dorm after a night spent with friends could well be prosecuted under this statute. The gnome theft is a third-degree misdemeanor if the gnome was worth less than $50, a second-degree misdemeanor if it was worth $50 or more but less than $200, or a first-degree misdemeanor if it was a deluxe version garden gnome worth $200 or more.

“Retail theft” is the legal term for shoplifting. In Pennsylvania, the offense levels for retail theft range from a summary offense for a first offense where the value of the merchandise is under $150, to a third-degree felony where the value of the stolen merchandise is greater than $1000, or the stolen item was a firearm or a motor vehicle.

“Library theft” occurs when, as you might guess, you take something from the library without checking it out. It's a crime of intent, meaning you have to have taken it “with the intent” of keeping it for yourself. Loading your backpack up with books and accidentally including a library book with the others is not library theft because you didn't intend to steal the book. Where the value of the stolen library materials is less than $150, and it's a first offense, the penalty is a summary offense. Subsequent convictions will increase the offense level: second-degree misdemeanor for a second offense and a value under $150; first-degree misdemeanor for a first or second offense and the value is $150 or more; and a third-degree felony if it's your third offense.

It might surprise some of us that “Theft of lost property” is even a crime, but in the real world, “finder's keepers” doesn't always apply. It's a crime if you find something that belongs to someone else that you know was lost, mislaid, or misdelivered, and if you don't take “reasonable measures to restore the property to a person entitled to have it.” Examples of this are when you find a mislaid backpack on the practice field with someone else's wallet inside, or you take the package delivered to your doorstep with your neighbor's address on it, but fail to try to get them to their actual owner. The offense level for committing theft of lost property, as with other theft crimes in Pennsylvania, depends a lot on the value of the stolen property. Offenses range from a third-degree misdemeanor where the value is less than $50, to a first-degree felony in the very unusual case where you find and keep something that has a value of $500,000 or more.

“Theft of services” is what happens when you make the mistake of doing a “dine and dash” at a restaurant, splicing into your neighbor's cable line so you can watch TV for free, or even connecting an additional TV to your own cable line without informing your cable provider (if doing so would normally result in you having to pay more for your cable service). When the value of the unpaid services is less than $50, the offense is a summary offense; otherwise, it ranges from a third-degree misdemeanor up to a first-degree felony, depending again on the value of the stolen services.

There are at least a dozen other criminal theft statutes on the books in Pennsylvania. If you've been charged with any theft-related crime, and you're enrolled in a college or university in Pennsylvania, you are facing the double headache of dealing with the criminal charges and the possibility of disciplinary action brought against you by your school. You need the help of an attorney-advisor  from the LLF Law Firm Team to help you defend yourself against both of these; they have years of experience helping students with these kinds of dual-prosecution situations.

Schools Punish Theft Too

Every college and university in the country has a code of conduct that applies to student behavior both on and off campus. Most of these codes specifically ban theft, and more generally, allow for disciplinary proceedings to be brought against students who are charged with crimes.

Villanova University's Student Handbook, for example, notes that “Theft of property or services . . . will result in sanction(s) ranging from suspension up to and including possible expulsion from the University.” Its Code of Student Conduct doesn't just apply to on-campus behavior; “any off-campus violation of local, state or federal laws or ordinances constitutes a violation of the Code of Student Conduct.”

The University of Pennsylvania similarly advises students that they are expected to “refrain from stealing, damaging, defacing, or misusing the property or facilities of the University or of others” and are required to “comply with federal, state, and local laws.”

Penn State likewise considers the “Unauthorized taking or possession of property belonging to another” to be prohibited misconduct. The Penn State Student Code of Conduct applies to university-related activities “regardless of location,” and the school reserves the right to “apply the Code to behavior which occurs elsewhere when the University can demonstrate a clear and distinct interest as an academic institution” and the behavior in question is “a violation of local, state, or federal law.”

Temple University very simply includes both “Theft of University property, private property, or government property” and “Violation of any federal, state or local law” as violations of the school's Student Conduct Code.

And Drexel University's Code of Conduct prohibits “an unlawful taking,” which includes theft of property or services, or keeping or disposing of stolen property “even if there is intent to return the property.” It also considers violations of “any federal, state, and city laws and ordinances” to be a violation of its Code of Conduct.

Schools Will Prosecute You Even if the Government Doesn't

Where theft is concerned, schools have their own prohibitions that leave them ample room to file disciplinary proceedings against you for theft whether or not you were charged with a theft crime by the government. This also means that if you were charged with a crime but were acquitted or the charges were dropped, you may still face disciplinary proceedings back at school.

This can be extremely stressful because a school disciplinary proceeding typically looks and feels very much like a criminal prosecution if you are the one accused of violating the school Code of Conduct. The major differences are that you generally have more rights in a criminal case than you do in a student discipline case and that the burden of proof in a criminal case is higher (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) than in a school discipline case (typically, “more likely than not”).

While each school has its own set of procedures for conducting investigations and disciplinary proceedings under the school's code of student conduct, they generally tend to be similar in many ways. There are generally broad similarities in how they operate.

The Complaint and Investigation

Typically, there is a complaint filed against you by someone else connected with the school, or the school becomes aware of a criminal charge filed against you by authorities. In fact, you might even be the one to inform the school; Drexel's Code of Conduct requires students to notify the school “of any conviction, a plea of no contest, acceptance of responsibility, or acceptance of sanctions for a crime or civil infraction (other than a minor traffic offense) in local (city or township), state or federal court if the underlying behavior impacts the University community.” And if you fail to do so, that's a separate code of conduct violation.

Each school has an assigned official who makes an initial investigation of complaints or misconduct reports. Where there appears to be merit to the matter, the official may propose a voluntary and informal supervised meeting – basically, a mediation – between you and the complainant to see if the matter can be resolved without further proceedings. That meeting can end with the matter being dropped; with you agreeing to certain sanctions against you (in which case the matter will end there); or with no resolution, in which case things usually become much more formal.

The Charges and the Hearing

What typically happens next is a more formal and detailed investigation that generally leads to a set of specific charges against you. You can accept the findings of the investigation and any follow-on consequences, or you can dispute them. Assuming you dispute them, there is then a formal hearing procedure during which evidence is presented and arguments made by both sides to a hearing panel appointed by the school. Evidentiary standards are usually looser than in court; it's very possible that the hearing panel will receive and consider the evidence (such as hearsay testimony) that would never make it to the jury in a criminal case. The panel rules on the evidence, and if any of the charges are substantiated, the school will impose sanctions on you that can vary greatly depending on the offense. You generally then have a limited right to appeal the hearing panel's finding and the sanctions.

You Don't Have to Face This Alone

Most schools will allow you to have a personal representative with you at all important stages of the process. This person can be anybody, and in particular, can be a lawyer. If you are facing school disciplinary proceedings relating to a claim that you've stolen something on or off campus, you need an attorney as your personal representative. This goes double if you've also been charged with any theft-related crime.

Attorney-advisor - The LLF Law Firm Team Can Help

The LLF Law Firm Team have been helping students like you in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country for years. They understand the difficulties you face if you are being prosecuted twice – once by the government, and once by your school. They have seen first-hand how what happens in one proceeding can have an effect on what happens in the other, and will fight to make sure your rights are protected in both cases. Call LLF Law Firm today at 888.535.3686 or contact The LLF Law Firm Team online. Find out how they can help you protect your future both in and out of school!

Contact Us Today!

The LLF Law Firm Team has decades of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the LLF Law Firm today! Our Criminal Defense Team will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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