Notes from the Frontline: Stainless Steal

By Matt Delito on at

In facing the sky, I observe that the heavens are heavy of mind and pregnant with rain. "A perfect day", I mumble to myself, "to be stuck on goddamn foot patrol duty."

Today, I'm looking after a probationer, and we have been given first dibs on the next burglary that is reported, because it's one of the things he needs for his folder - the training manual all probationers slowly work their way through on their way to no longer being probationers. A glorious idea in theory, but not having a car to get to said burglary seems to me like a bloody waste of time.

There are plenty of buses going throughout the borough, and there's nothing wrong with going to a call on the bus, in theory; in practice, however, it never really sat well with me to not have a set of wheels. I think there's something about being a response copper - I have it in my blood; when an I-grade comes in, I feel a brief moment of what I imagine an olympic athlete must feel: A feeling of raised preparedness, awareness, a slight tingling of adrenaline, and a grim determination of doing your cursed best, no matter what.

Of course, an I-grade means that we have to get to the call in only a few minutes, and regardless what you see on television, I can't rip open the doors of the closest car, flash my badge and say 'Ma'am, I am the police, and am going to have to commandeer this vehicle', before putting on my sunglasses, cranking up the stereo, and flying, tyres a-squealing, down the road. Don't get me wrong, I have thought of it many times, but I figured that the brass wouldn't see it with quite the sense of humour it deserves. And given that doing this would at the very least be TWOC (Taken Without Owner's Consent), I doubt I'd escape that one with my job intact.

Anyway, all of this is moot, because, as it turned out, we spent the entire day doing nothing productive: about 20 minutes into our shift we received a call about a traffic incident, and the next nine-and-a-half hours, I spent directing traffic, guarding a cordon, and following the painfully slow pantomime that is set into motion whenever a pissed-out-of-his-mind father-of-two runs straight over a teenage cyclist. It was gory, it was tragic, and it was difficult beyond words to just stand at the sideline, first watching the teenage girl take her final breaths before the ambulance even arrived, and subsequently watch the father-of-two (who, as it turned out, had a daughter who was only a year older than the 17-year-old he had flattened into an early grave with his Range Rover) completely go to pieces as he slowly came out of his drunken stupor, and made the ever-so-slow realisation that his life was never going to be the same again.

You'll have to forgive me glossing over this particular episode with more than a sprinkling of world-weary cynicism - but I saw the exact same thing only three days ago, and again a couple of weeks before that. Somehow, people don't realise that beer doesn't make you a better driver, and cars are rather dangerous, especially in combination with other road users. Anyway, I've had a dog of a day, and I'm deeply, profoundly and utterly not in the mood.

So, instead of a story about death that I'm not in the mood for, I'm going to exploit the privilege that comes with writing my own column, to write about something I actually like to geek out about.

Let's rewind a couple of paragraph - apropos my reference to 'TWOC' just then; did you know that it is practically impossible to steal a car?

Allow me to explain.

It's not that cars are hard to start - with all the fancy electronics you find in cars these days, doing so without the keys is tricky, which is why theft from a vehicle is more common than theft of a vehicle. And, for similar reasons, you'll often find that car thieves will try to obtain the keys through other means; deception, robbery, burglary, or, indeed, theft. Either way; you can steal a set of keys, but stealing a car is impossible, because it is related to the legal definition of theft.

Ask any police officer what the definition of theft is, and you'll get one of two looks: Either a twinkle of pride, or an annoyed look of fear; I belong in the former category, and will proudly rattle off the formal definition... And if you ever meet me, I welcome you to try me on that one. If you receive the latter, the annoyed look is the face of an officer thinking 'oh shit, I really ought to know this, but I haven't read my white notes in so long that I cannot remember it verbatim'.

Anyway, the definition theft is "To dishonestly appropriate property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it". To be guilty of 'theft', in other words, you have to fulfil each of the criteria baked into the definition.

It all sounds quite simple, but it's rather interesting, actually; that relatively short sentence contains a whole lot of words with very specific meanings, and if any one of those things is not 'covered', it isn't 'theft'. Obviously, it may still be a crime; but it wouldn't be 'theft' in the legal sense of the word.

So, since I have you here, I'd like to be a geek about one of my favourite topics for a little bit, and break down the definition of 'theft' into its basic components. I should also point out that I'm just riffing on the subject here; I'm not a solicitor, nor do I have any law training beyond what the Metropolitan Police gave me, so I might be slightly off the mark here and there. Don't use anything in this post to try to defend yourself in court, none of this is legal advice, and please feel free to imagine all those other woolly disclaimers people write to cover their asses on the internet inserted in this paragraph, too.

Got that? Good.

To dishonestly appropriate...

So, The definition launches into the word 'dishonestly', which is a fantastically interesting word. Basically, if you walk into a corner shop, grab a bottle of beer, and someone asks you to pay for it... If you pay for it, thinking that the person who charged you for it worked in the shop, you weren't acting dishonestly: you thought you had paid.

Similarly, imagine your mother gives you £20 every time you visit your parents. If you were to visit, your mother was out, and you saw her pocket book on the kitchen table, could you take £20? You could argue that you would have been given permission to do so if she had been there, based on previous actions, and so you weren't acting dishonestly.

Or, for example, imagine you leave a restaurant after a long night out, and you've forgotten to pay. In and of itself, that is not dishonest - but it could become a problem, depending on what you do when you realise you've forgotten to pay. Or perhaps a friend leaves a party, and you spot their phone on the table after you leave, so you pick it up and give it to them, only to realise that it wasn't their phone after all. Again; not dishonest, so not theft.

There's loads of examples around this, and I'm sure you could think of a few; The key thing here is what happens once you realise that what you did might have been dishonest. If your mother tells you it wasn't okay to take the £20; if you don't give the phone back; if you fail to go back to the restaurant to pay... Basically, if you don't go back to set things right, you're in trouble.

An interesting one here; part of the definition of theft refers to taking 'reasonable steps' to find out who the rightful owner of a found object is. If you do not take reasonable steps, you're being dishonest. As an example: If you find a £20 note on the ground, it is safe to assume that it belongs to someone; if you saw who dropped it, it would be 'dishonest' to keep it, and so you would be guilty of theft if you kept it. In practice, it is tricky to find the 'owner' of a loose £20, and holding it up, asking "Did anyone drop this?" is probably enough research before you pocket it. If you find a wallet, however - and especially if there's a means of tracking down the owner - removing any of the money - even a single penny - is dishonest, and technically theft.

... property belonging to another ...

This one is usually pretty obvious. It has to be property, and it has to belong to somebody. There's two sides to this: There are things that aren't 'property' in the legal sense of the word, including, for example, wild berries and mushrooms, wild flowers, and wild creatures. So, if you pick a lovely bouquet of flowers for your mum to apologise as you bring her back her £20 note that you weren't supposed to have liberated from her wallet, you're in luck: you're not committing a further theft.

Other things that aren't property are things like electricity - you cannot 'steal' it - because it doesn't disappear when you use it; in effect, you are dishonestly using it. Of course, lawmakers got around that one by making 'abstracting electricity' a separate crime.

On that note, it's worth pointing out that, of course, it is possible that some plants are endangered, some creatures may not be killed, and you'd probably be better off not eating some of the mushrooms you find out in the forest - but you wouldn't be committing theft; just crimes under other bits of legislation.

The other side of this is that the property has to belong to (or 'be in the legal care of') somebody - it is possible for something to have no owner. Garbage, for example, has been discarded by its original owner, and in most circumstances, so-called 'dumpster diving' is not theft, with the argument that you cannot dispose of something one second, and have a say over what happens to it the next.

Another interesting quirk of the law is that it is possible to steal something that belongs to you in the first place. Say, for example, that your toaster breaks, and you take it to a toaster repair shop. You leave it in their 'possession and control', and whilst you still own it, it now 'belongs' to the toaster repair shop. If you go back into the shop whilst the shopkeeper is out, and take your own toaster back without telling them, it is - in theory - possible to have committed theft, because the item isn't meant to be in your possession at the time. In practice, you would probably be charged with obtaining services dishonestly (since you probably owed the repairman money at this point) rather than theft, but still.

... with the intention of ...

Now this one is bloody interesting, because it is often one of the ones that shoplifters use in their defence; Part of the definition of the crime of theft includes intent - in other words, you have to purposefully commit the crime of theft in order to be guilty of theft.

As a thought experiment; Imagine you are walking around a supermarket, and your phone rings. When it does, you have a small item in your hand, and you stick it in your pocket, as you grab your phone. You finish your phone call, and then remember that the item is in your pocket. If you think "Oh, I have to remember to pay for that chocolate bar", you haven't committed theft; after all, you don't intend to steal the chocolate bar. However, if you change your mind, and you think "Hey, this bar of chocolate is already in my pocket, and nobody saw me put it there. I am now going to walk out of the shop without paying it", you have committed theft. Nothing has changed, except the thoughts in your head - and since we cannot read anybody's mind, this causes some interesting issues.

Supermarkets and shops get around this by asking you to use a shopping basket. When you do, you are expected to use it - and if you are caught leaving the shop with a chocolate bar in your pocket, you're going to have a really hard time explaining why you decided to put the chocolate in your pocket instead of in your shopping basket.

Legally, however, sticking a bar of chocolate in your pocket isn't theft - if you remember to pay for it before you leave the shop. If you do not, you're in trouble. If you did it on purpose, you're guilty of theft.

In practical terms, it's impossible to see inside your mind, but the 'intention' thing isn't actually all that hard to prove; did you look over your shoulder before you put the chocolate in your pocket? Did you try to conceal what you did? If caught as you try to leave the shop, what do you say and how do you act, etc.

... permanently depriving the other of it

This one is another good one, and is the thing that got me started on this rant in the first place. Proving that you plan to permanently deprive is easy in some cases (if you eat the chocolate bar, you cannot give it back, so obviously it has been 'permanently deprived'). It could be argued that if you take your neighbour's lawnmower without asking, you could be guilty of theft - but most people give the lawnmower back, in which case it wouldn't be theft.

If you knew your housemate had a roll of £20 notes in their sock drawer, and you took £20 without telling them, and then spent it, you have 'permanently deprived' them of the £20 note. If you later that day go to a cash point, draw out £20 and put a £20 note back, you will technically still be guilty of theft - the exact note you 'borrowed' without permission is permanently missing, and it's unlikely that you'll ever see that exact note back again. From a practical point of view, your housemate probably won't care which £20 note is in their sock drawer, but from a legal standpoint, you're a thief.

There are situations where it is possible to 'borrow' an item and give it back, but it still be seen as 'permanent deprivation'. For example, if I buy a ticket to a Maroon 5 gig (don't worry, I probably wouldn't), and you 'borrow' it, go to the gig, and then give it back to me after the concert is over, you could argue that you are not guilty of theft, because you didn't deprive me of the piece of paper. However, I could argue that the piece of paper is irrelevant, and that it serves instead as a permission to enter the concert and experience the band live. Most people agree that the paper the ticket is printed on has little value in and of itself; it is the thing it represents (i.e. that the door-man lets you through the doors to experience the concert) that has value. If that is the case; you would indeed have 'permanently deprived' me of the value of the ticket, and therefore arguably been guilty of theft.

Along similar lines, imagine that you are at a restaurant, and you see a very beautiful vase that you think may be worth some money. You pay for your meal but you take the vase with you, planning to sell it to an antique dealer. When you get to the dealer, they tell you it's worthless, and you suddenly feel bad, so you try to sneak the vase back into the restaurant. However, when you get back there, the police is waiting for you. Even though you've changed your mind, they have it on CCTV that you saw the vase, hid it under your jacket, and removed it from the premises. The fact that you've changed your mind has no impact on the crime - there is more than enough evidence to arrest you for theft - your remorse and the attempt to return the vase might get you off the hook (either entirely in that they cannot be bothered arresting you, that they cannot be arsed charging you, or - if they do decide to do both - through a lighter sentence when the case ends up in court), but you're still a thief in the eyes of the law.

The word 'theft' also often comes up in copyright debates, especially vis-a-vis internet filesharing, movie and music piracy, and so on and so forth. Whilst there is no doubt that pirating music off the internet is illegal, it cannot be 'theft' under the Theft Act of 1968, simply because it doesn't fit the 'permanently depriving' part of the definition: If I make a copy of my Metallica MP3 files and give them to all my friends, nobody has been 'deprived' of the actual physical files: I still have them, my friends have them, and Metallica still has a copy of their songs somewhere. Presumably.

And this brings us full circle to the point I made at the beginning of this lengthy rant; why it is difficult to be convicted of to 'stealing' a car; It happens rarely that a vehicle is stolen with the purpose of permanently depriving its owner - Or rather, it's very difficult to prove such a thing. The crux of the matter is a simple question: How do you prove beyond reasonable doubt that the car thief didn't mean to bring the vehicle back; or that they didn't mean to use it and abandon it later? If it is abandoned somewhere at the side of a road, for example, a good solicitor could argue that the criminal meant for the owner to find and be re-united with their vehicle again - and if that is the case, this particularly criminally-bent knight-in-shining-armour would be a lot of things; but not a stealythief.

Instead, someone found in possession of a car that they do not have permission to drive, they are arrested for and charged with TWOC or TDA - Taking Without Owner's Consent, or Taking and Driving Away. The one exception to that is if someone is caught trying to dismantle a car; obviously, it's easier to prove that they intended to 'permanently deprive' the car's owner of the car if they are taking it to pieces for scrap or parts.

So, what's the point?

I know it isn't much of a story (certainly nothing as dramatic as the riots, that's for sure), but I did want to give you a glimpse into just a tiny bit of the legal side of things we have to consider on a day-to-day basis.

The whole point of this article is that we use words like 'stealing', 'theft' and 'a thief' in everyday language all the time; as a police officer, even a simple word such as 'theft' has an ocean of meaning; and slick thieves will use every trick in the book to try to avoid getting arrested.

"I didn't know that belonged to anyone", "I found it", "I forgot I put it in my pocket", "I was only borrowing it", "I was going to give it back"... We've heard all the excuses - but you'd be amazed how often I end up having to explain in detail why someone is about to get arrested either way


Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.

If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.

Image credit: Police image from Shutterstock.