Handling Stolen Goods

handling stolen goodsHandling stolen goods is a charge for the dishonest handling of property through retention, removal, disposal or realisation by or benefit of another person. An example may be an instance where you have received goods that have ‘fallen off the back of a truck’. Knowledge that goods were dishonestly obtained may result in a criminal charge.

The legislation

This offence is governed by section 88 of the Crimes Act 1958 (‘the Act’). It reads as follows:

  1. A person handles stolen goods if knowing or believing them to be stolen goods he dishonestly receives the goods or brings them into Victoria, or dishonestly undertakes or assists in bringing them into Victoria or in their retention, removal, disposal or realisation by or for the benefit of another person, or if he arranges to do so.

Jurisdictional limits

Handling stolen goods is an indictable offence, which means that it may be heard in the higher courts; however it is often dealt with in Magistrates’ Court. The seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the charge will determine in what jurisdiction the matter is heard.

Most charges of handling stolen goods are heard in the Magistrates’ Court. If the value of the goods exceed $100,000.00 or if it is attached to more serious dishonesty charges, it may then be heard in the higher courts. The circumstances surrounding your charges will determine this issue.

The Act states that the offence carries a 15 year term of imprisonment as the highest possible sentence. However, the maximum term of imprisonment that can be imposed in the Magistrates’ Court for a single offence is two years. Further, the maximum aggregate total sentence that can be imposed is five years.

This offence is a medium ranging dishonesty offence which does not generally carry a goal term when guilt is established in the Magistrates’ Court if it is a single first offence.

The elements of Handling Stolen Goods

There are four elements that constitute the offence of handling stolen goods:

  1. The accused handled the goods;
  2. The goods were stolen goods at the time the accused handled them;
  3. The accused knew or believed at the time he/she handled them they were stolen goods; and
  4. The accused’s handling of the goods was dishonest.

Element 1: Accused handled the goods

Handling is defined in the Act as the retention, removal, disposal or realisation by or benefit of another person. Goods include money, every other type of property except land (i.e. clothing, electronics, books) and things severed from the land by stealing.

You should be aware that a person who receives the goods and does nothing more, does not handle them.

The accused must have:

  • Undertaken or arranged to undertake that activity him or herself for the benefit of another person.
  • Assisted or arranged to assist another person to carry out that activity.
  • Retained the goods for the benefit of another person.
  • Assisted another person to retain the goods; or
  • Arranged to do one of the above.

Receiving goods means the accused takes them into his or possession. The prosecution must establish that the accused had custody or control over the goods and intended to have custody or control over them. An accused must do more than receive the goods, they must do it:

  1. For the benefit of another person
  2. Assist another person to retain the goods or
  3. Arrange to do one of the above activities

Undertaking means that the accused undertakes one of the prohibited activities himself/herself.

Assisting means that the accused helps another person to perform one of the above listed prohibited activities. An accused can assist in an activity even if the assistance is futile.

Selling stolen goods for an accused’s own benefit does not make out the handling charge (for example selling stolen goods and keeping all the proceeds). To have “handled” the goods, the accused must have sold them for the benefit of a person other than the purchaser.

Please note selling stolen goods may result in other criminal charges.

If this charge is heard in the higher courts, the prosecution should clarify in the indictment which form of handling is alleged.
 
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Element 2: The goods were stolen goods

In a charge of Handling Stolen Goods, the prosecution must prove that the goods were stolen at the time the accused handled them. The goods can be stolen in Victoria or elsewhere. Goods can also cease to be stolen if they:

  1. They are restored to the person from whom they were stolen;
  2. They are restored to other lawful possession or custody; or
  3. The person from whom they were stolen and any other person claiming through him or her have otherwise ceased to have any right to restitution of those goods in respect of the theft (Crimes Act 1958 s90(3)).

An accused may admit that the goods were stolen having the required knowledge after being charged. This does not necessarily mean that they knew them to be stolen at the time. The circumstances that give rise to the goods being in the possession can also be sufficient proof that they were stolen or/and the Prosecution can make enquiries of the owner of the goods, if traceable or known, to satisfy this element.

Element 3: Knowledge or belief that the goods were stolen

The third element requires the prosecution to establish that the accused knew or believed the goods to be stolen. The belief of the accused is to be judged by subjective standards. A suspicion that goods were stolen is not sufficient1

– the element requires actual knowledge or belief. The fact that a person is negligent or reckless in handling goods is not sufficient evidence.

Evidence that the accused knew facts which should have put him or her on notice as to whether the goods were stolen does not necessarily prove that the accused knew or believed that the goods had been stolen. If the jury is satisfied that the accused ignored suspicious circumstances, they must determine whether this was because the accused knew or believed the goods were stolen. They must reject the possibility that the accused was simply gullible, naive or absent-minded.2

To determine whether the accused knew or believed, the jury may also turn to the circumstances of the alleged offending. In R v Woods3, evidence that an accused has driven a car containing stolen goods out of a street, then on seeing the police, has reversed back into the same street and when subsequently questioned has denied that he possessed the keys in the car, is admissible as relevant to the issue of guilty knowledge.

Element 4: The accused handling of the goods was dishonest

The prosecution must prove that when the accused, by deception, obtained the property, he or she was acting dishonestly. That being that the accused himself or herself did not believe that he or she had, in all the circumstances, a legal right to obtain the property.4

In a trial involving the charge of Handling Stolen Goods, the questions a judge will ask the jury to consider are:

  1. Did the accused handle goods?
    (Consider – Did the accused [identify goods and relevant form of handling]?)

    If yes, then go to 2.
    If no, then the accused is not guilty of handling stolen goods.

  • Were the goods the accused handled stolen goods?
    If yes, then go to 3.
    If no, then the accused is not guilty of handling stolen goods.
  • Did the accused know or believe that the goods were stolen at the time of the handling?
    If yes, then go to 4.
    If no, then the accused is not guilty of handling stolen goods.
  • Was the accused acting dishonestly at the time of handling the goods?
    (Consider – Has the prosecution proved that the accused did not believe that he/she had a legal right to [identify relevant form of handling])?

    If yes, then the accused is guilty of handling stolen goods (as long as you have also answered Yes to questions 1, 2 and 3).
    If no, then the accused is not guilty of handling stolen goods.

Defences to the charge of Handling Stolen Goods

Lack of knowledge is a defence available to the charge if the accused did not have knowledge that the goods handled were stolen. Other defences available include factual dispute, duress, wrongful identification, mental impairment, honest and reasonable mistake or belief or necessity may apply.

Sentencing outcomes in the Magistrates’ Court

The Sentencing Advisory Council has released sentencing statistics for the sentencing of handling stolen goods in the Magistrates’ Court between July 2011 to June 2014. Over the three year period, 6,108 cases were before the Court. 35.5% of people sentenced received a period of imprisonment, 12.4% received a wholly suspended period of imprisonment, 4.4% received a partially suspended sentence, 14.3% received a fine, and about 22.7% received some form of community based order.5

The most common length of imprisonment imposed was between 3 and 6 months, with 24.2% of persons imprisoned sentenced within that range.

Please note that suspended sentences were abolished in Victoria for all offences committed on or after 1 September 2014.
Higher Court

Sentencing outcomes in the higher courts

The Sentencing Advisory Council has released sentencing statistics for the sentencing of handling stolen goods in the County and Supreme Court’s between July 2009 to June 2014. Over the five year period, 280 cases were heard before the higher courts. 73.9% of people sentenced received a period of imprisonment, 4.6% received a wholly suspended period of imprisonment, 5.7% received a partially suspended sentence, 3.2% received a fine, and about 12.8% received some form of community based order.6

The most common length of imprisonment imposed was between 0 and 1 year with 68.6% of persons imprisoned sentenced within that range.

Please note that suspended sentences were abolished in the higher courts earlier than that of the Magistrates’ Court, and therefore for all offences committed on or after 1 September 2013 will not have this available as a sentencing option.

To view sentencing decisions by Victorian County Courts for the charge of Handling Stolen Goods, visit this page.

Check out some of the criminal cases we’ve defended in court involving the charge of Handling Stolen Goods:



[1]R v Grainge [1974] 1 WLR 619; R v Henderson & Warwick (2009) 22 VR 662.
[2]Atwal v Massey (1972) 56 Cr App R 6; R v Grainge [1974] 1 WLR 619; R v Bellenie [1980] Crim LR 437; R v Park (1988) 87 Cr App R 164) cited in Criminal Charge Book, 7.5.1.7.1 – Bench notes: Handling Stolen Goods (1 July 2011) Judicial College of Victoria: <http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/eManuals/CCB/index.htm#5123.htm>.
[3]1987] 1 WLR 779 cited in Nash, Gerard, Bourke’s Criminal Law Victoria (LexisNexis Butterworths, 5th ed, 2005).
[4]R v Salvo [1980] VR 401.
[5]http://www.sentencingcouncil.vic.gov.au/sacstat/magistrates_court/6231_88_1.tables.html.
[6]Sentencing Snapshot No. 167 May 2015.