Missouri Supreme Court

The Missouri Supreme Court building.

JEFFERSON CITY • Attorney General Chris Koster filed a motion Wednesday asking for a new hearing after a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling has the state’s public defenders trying to get their clients’ felony stealing charges knocked down to misdemeanors.

In a case where a woman was convicted of stealing firearms, jewelry and other items, the court ruled last month that two of her felony stealing charges were really misdemeanors, citing contradictory language in Missouri’s criminal code after a change the Legislature made in 2002.

The motion filed Wednesday gave a sense as to just how far that decision could reach, saying that at the time of filing, based “on information and belief,” that the Missouri Department of Corrections is supervising approximately 1,448 individuals with felony stealing convictions.

“There are undoubtedly many others who are being privately supervised or supervised by the courts,” the motion says.

At issue is the language of the statutes that defines stealing and enhances the crime to felony charge. In Missouri, stealing is defined as “appropriat[ing] property or services of another with the purpose to deprive him or her thereof, either without his consent or by means of deceit or coercion.”

A statute that allows the state to enhance stealing of items or services of a certain value to a felony charge is applied to “any offense in which the value of property or services is an element.”

The court ruled that because the law that defines stealing doesn’t include the value of property stolen as an element of the offense, prosecutors couldn’t charge the woman in the case with felony stealing.

Koster’s motion asks the court to evaluate the Legislature’s intent beyond its initial plain language analysis, arguing that the judges “should have looked beyond the purported plain language of the statute in order to avoid an absurd or illogical result.”

The result is absurd, according to the motion, because the Missouri Legislature has continued to amend the felony stealing law to include other charges, including the theft of certain chemicals, historical documents and explosive weapons.

“But if the Court’s analysis in this case is followed to its logical conclusion, then the theft of such property was merely a misdemeanor, and the General Assembly was merely making meaningless additions to the list of specific types of property that constitute class C felony stealing,” the motion says.

The Missouri State Public Defender’s Office has already taken the ruling as precedent to defend anyone with felony stealing charges. The attorney general’s motion confirms that appeals were filed “within days of the Court’s opinion in this case.”

Ellen Flottman, the district defender of the Central Appellate Office of Missouri State Public Defender System, could not be immediately reached for comment regarding the new filing, but previously told the Post-Dispatch that the broad decision made many appeals potentially possible.

“Stealing is not an offense in which value is an element,” she said. “That language has no business being in there. I don’t know why the Legislature put it in there. I don’t think they intended it to have this effect, certainly.”

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