In an interesting recent case, the defendant was charged with theft of property worth more than $100,000 and related offenses after occupying a home without permission for 7 months. The home was an expensive single-family dwelling. The owner had moved out and offered the property for sale with a Coldwell Banker realtor. When she moved out, the doors and windows were secured and the property was in good condition.
The defendant did not know the owner, but pretended he had a lease with the owner to rent the property. The defendant had been a former client of the same real estate agent who listed the owner’s house. He claimed to be interested in buying the house, but when a sales contract was prepared, told the agent he wouldn’t purchase.
The general counsel for the bank from which the owner had obtained a mortgage was notified a tenant occupied the property. She thought the lease the tenant presented was legitimate and filed a motion with the circuit court to possess the property. At that point, she noticed that the lease term began after foreclosure had already started and let the court know. She thought the owner and defendant had a fraudulent scheme against the bank.
When the owner denied any knowledge of a tenant, the bank’s attorney filed a motion saying that the lease was fraudulent. The bank got a writ of possession for the property, but the bank’s resale was delayed by the defendant’s refusal to stop squatting on the property. A detective told the defendant that the owner’s signature on the lease was a forgery, but the defendant simply said he was renting the property from somebody else.
At trial, the defendant’s wife testified that she and the defendant had lost their own home to foreclosure after the mortgage payments were doubled. They met Derrick Williams in 2008 when he brought potential buyers to look at their home. He told the defendant and his wife about the house at issue in this case. They rented from him.
The defendant’s wife also testified that she saw the defendant sign the lease with Williams and that they paid him $7000 in cash for first month’s rent and security deposit. When they received the letter about the foreclosure, they tried to contact Williams, but his phone was disconnected. She also testified that they didn’t make any payments subsequently because they couldn’t get in touch with Williams or the real owner. Later she learned the lease was a forgery.
When the State of Maryland closed its case, the defendant moved for judgment of acquittal. He argued that the house had not been hidden and the bank had not proven financial loss. With respect to the burglary charge, he claimed there was no intent to commit theft, nor a breaking because Williams had given him keys and a garage door opener.
The State argued that theft could be proved simply by showing he had unauthorized control over the property. The circuit court denied the defendant’s motion for judgment of acquittal. The jury convicted the defendant for stealing property of more than $100,000, forgery, uttering a false document, first-degree burglary and identity fraud. The defendant was sentenced to five concurrent sentences of 10 years of imprisonment, a fine of $10,000 and five years of unsupervised probation. The defendant appealed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
A panel of the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the conviction. The defendant asked the Court of Appeals to review. The State argued the evidence was sufficient to support the defendant’s conviction under the theory he obtained control by deception. It argued that because the defendant lived in the house, he deprived the owner of living there or receiving rental income.
For the first time the defendant argued that a squatter’s actions are not theft under a theory of exerting unauthorized control. He argued that the State had to prove actual deprivation.
The appellate court explained that a house can be the subject of theft, because it is something of value. In this case, the defendant had occupied the house without paying for seven months. The appellate court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to conclude the defendant had committed theft by possessing the house through deception.
If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should consult with an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
What Constitutes “Contempt of Court” in Maryland Criminal Court, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 12, 2013
Is Self-Defense an Available Defense in a Charge of Affray? Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 18, 2013