06 September 2011

Valuation of a Stolen Item. What if There is No Price Tag?

While sale price is the usual value placed on items, things which are stolen aren't always for sale. So, how do you determine the value to be placed on such items when determining whether a theft should be a misdemeanor (less than $200) or a felony ($200 or more)?

The answer which most courts would reach for would be fair market value. The question then becomes: How do you determine fair market value?

One manner which the courts use a lot is to allow the owner to testify as to value. Generally, the court will presume this is correct. However, this presumption is less sturdy than that of a price tag. The reason for this is obvious. That old, barely running car the victim couldn't sell can suddenly become a classic Chevy worth $20,000. This is a place where a defense attorney can really earn his pay.

Another way to establish market value is to show the price that its equivalent sells for on a resale market. There are a couple ways this can be done. The first is to use some sort of authoritative publication to establish value. The most commonly used of these is the Blue Book, which is used to establish the value of cars. However, there are a number of publications which can be used similarly for comic books, coins, stamps, etc. The second is to bring someone to court who can testify as to resale value. Thus, if someone stole a china set from 1893 a local antique dealer could come to court to testify as to its resale value. The only real difficulty with either method is establishing the condition of the item being evaluated. Here, again, the testimony of the victim is going to be key (assuming the stolen item wasn't recovered).

Sometimes, fair market value is not available. An example of this in Virginia is the case in which the appellate court basically stated that there is no fair market value for a catalytic converter because there is no resale market for catalytic converters in Virginia. In this sort of case, the way that value would most likely be established would be to take the value at time of purchase and subtract wastage from it for each year it has been possessed to determine value. You could probably use the same sort of devaluation found in tax codes for property value over a period of years. I've never had to prove property value in this manner and hopefully never will.

Tomorrow: Valuing Stolen Computer Data

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