Defending Theft Charges in Washington, DC

Peter Odom, a theft attorney in DC, answers questions about common defense strategies for theft cases in the District of Columbia.

What are common defense strategies in theft cases?

Peter Odom: Defense strategies can focus on the intent of the person who is being accused, the circumstances of the arrest, the kind of evidence the prosecutor plans on submitting, the kinds of witnesses that were present at the time, and what the accuser is claiming happened. Was there a misunderstanding? Were there words that were unclear? Was the identification misleading? If the police used a legally improper way to identify someone, that could very likely result in a bad identification.

One of the most common defense strategies in theft cases is the person’s lack of desire to permanently deprive the rightful owner of the item. Another common defense strategy is to argue that the person actually had the permission of the rightful owner to use the item and that the taking of the item did not occur without permission. An issue that comes up frequently in theft of service cases is that the person was unsatisfied with the service and that is why they decline to pay for it. That occurs often in taxi cab cases where a person is unsatisfied with their cab ride and refuses to pay. I also see situations in which a cab driver refuses to accept the person’s credit card, even though under DC law, in most circumstances cab drivers are required to accept credit cards or take the person to an ATM machine so that they are able to pay in some other manner. Sometimes the cab drivers refuse to do that and the person declines to pay as a result.

Why is it important to hire an attorney in a theft case?

Peter Odom: It’s important to not underestimate the seriousness of a theft charge. Even a misdemeanor theft charge can still have an impact on a person’s life. Even in a situation where a person may feel that they committed the offense and they think that they should plead guilty and be done with the case, having a lawyer who has experience in these kinds of situations can work it out, even in situations where there may not be a lot of good possible defenses. A lawyer who has dealt with these kinds of cases a lot can conduct negotiations to try to minimize penalties. Having an attorney gives the person the highest chance of avoiding a conviction for the charges or avoiding the more serious penalties of a higher level charge of felony theft. They can look into all of the details to get an understanding of what the requirements of these laws are and try to find the best defenses and minimize the penalty as much as possible.

It is never a good idea for someone to defend themselves against any criminal charge, let alone a theft charge because the proceedings are too complicated. The issues involved in the case are not straightforward and the options for resolving the case without going to trial may not be immediately apparent to a person who is not familiar with court procedure and the rules in DC. A lawyer can walk the person through those options including not taking the case to trial, finding a way to negotiate a resolution, and figuring out what the best possible resolution is.

What are the most common questions that clients facing theft charges ask you?

Peter Odom: The most common question I am asked in theft cases is, “Is there a way to get these charges dismissed?” The answer in many circumstances is yes. There are alternate ways to get the charges dismissed, such as through negotiations with the prosecutor, through restitution payment, and, sometimes, through community service. There are ways to get theft charges dismissed, but it depends on the specific circumstances of the case. In many situations, there are ways to avoid the criminal conviction and the hit to the person’s criminal record.

What are common mistakes that individuals make in theft cases?

Peter Odom: The most common mistake that I see is when a person attempts to explain what occurred or they answer a police officer’s questions whether or not they have committed the crime. In nearly every situation, making statements to the police and attempting to explain a situation is a bad idea. The better thing to do upon getting arrested is to stay quiet and avoid answering any questions. It does not matter whether or not the person feels that they have done something wrong. Either way, it never helps to make statements to the police. It is a better idea to respectfully decline to answer questions and wait to talk to a lawyer to figure out what options are available.

What makes defending theft cases challenging?

Peter Odom: A lot of people charged with theft may have never been involved with the criminal system before. I see that all the time in shoplifting cases as well as in theft of services cases. Theft of services is charged the same way as regular theft, but the idea behind theft of services is that there is no actual item taken. The allegation is that the defendant refused to provide compensation for a service that was provided. That happens a lot in situations where a person refuses to pay for an unsatisfactory cab ride or refuses to pay for unsatisfactory meal at a restaurant.

What makes you uniquely qualified to handle theft cases?

Peter Odom: I deal with many different people in many different circumstances with varying levels of criminal histories. Some people have never received a speeding ticket in their life and other people have had a few bouts with the law in the past, either for similar offenses, for drug offenses, for alcohol-related offenses, or whatever the case may be. Everyone who is going through a criminal case is scared and everyone is nervous. It doesn’t matter how many times a person has been in that situation before. I am able to apply my knowledge of these kinds of cases to an individual person’s circumstances to figure out how to best put them in a situation to minimize penalties to the greatest extent possible.

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