JEFFERSON CITY • A decision handed down this week by the Missouri Supreme Court has mobilized the state’s public defenders to pursue getting 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 pointed to contradictory language in Missouri’s criminal code after a change the Legislature made in 2002.
Under Missouri law, 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.
The ramifications of the ruling remain somewhat unclear. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said the office is reviewing the ruling.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s spokeswoman released a statement saying she was studying the ruling and awaiting word from Koster.
“The Circuit Attorney is evaluating the implications of the Mo. Supreme Court discussion on the charge of felony stealing,” it reads. “No final analysis or evaluation is possible at the present time as the Circuit Attorney is waiting to hear from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office on whether they intend to appeal the Court’s decision. The status of the Court’s ruling is not yet final.”
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was not available for comment Thursday, his office said.
Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Association for Prosecuting Attorneys, said Missouri prosecutors are still reviewing the ruling, but encouraged prosecutors to utilize the existing receiving stolen property statute for both felony and misdemeanor offenses in lieu of the traditional stealing statute if necessary.
But the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office already sees the ruling as precedent its lawyers can use to defend anyone with felony stealing charges pending, said Ellen Flottman, the district defender of the Central Appellate Office of Missouri State Public Defender System.
“Stealing is not an offense in which value is an element,” Flottman 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.”
Those in the public defender system have already been notifying trial attorneys of its implications, she said.
“We have to identify clients we need to be raising the issue for. Any cases pending appeal can still be challenged,” Flottman said.
It’s a broad decision that applies to many cases, she said, and its impact could be considerable when criminal attorneys from both sides get their bearings.
Mary Fox, who heads the St. Louis public defenders office, said she thinks the court’s decision was “well-reasoned.”
Fox estimated that the decision could apply to more than 2,000 cases in the city of St. Louis alone going back to 2002, when the law was last revised. Fox said her office intends to look for people convicted of felonies that should have been misdemeanors and investigate if their records can be corrected.
“If there is something to do for a client so that they are not a convicted felon or have an SIS (suspended imposition of sentence), we are going to do what we can do,” Fox said Thursday.
Starting Jan. 1, Missouri’s criminal code will be updated again. The contradictory language at the heart of this Supreme Court ruling will no longer be in there, said Flottman, who was on the committee that helped craft the new language.
The Supreme Court ruling could only be argued for those facing stealing charges in Missouri for crimes committed while the contradictory language was in place.