05 September 2011

Valuing a Stolen Item: The Price Tag

About a week ago, WindyPundit asked how value is proven in theft cases. It's an important question because the value of an item taken is usually determinative as to whether the accused faces a misdemeanor or felony charge.1 For instance, in Virginia if an item stolen is worth $200 or more the accused faces grand larceny charges and up to 20 years in prison. If the stolen item was worth $199.99, or less, the accused will be charged with a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail.

When dealing with something stolen that a business sells, the price the business sells the item for is the value assigned to the item. This has the virtue of being simple to ascertain. On occasion, defendants will argue that the value should be that of the costs the business has in the item and nothing more. However, this founders on the shoals of a couple difficulties.

To begin with, actual costs of acquisition or production are hard to determine. If someone steals a shirt from a store at the mall, it's easy to determine the shirt is priced at $40 and that it was bought from the wholesaler for $20. Then start the more difficult questions. How long did the shirt sit on the shelf before it was stolen? In that time, how much money was expended on employees, utilities, rent, security, etc. How much money was spent on even more external things such as regional managers, the national headquarters, the warehouse which stored the shirt before it went to the store, the truck which delivered the shirt to the store, etc. How much of each of these expenses should be assigned to this particular shirt?

Of course, all of that would be difficult – or more likely impossible – to determine. At best the prosecution would have to bring an accountant to court every single time there was a felony charge to determine actual value. The proof of valuation part of a trial would take hours upon hours as the accountant went thru and described how a particular value is assigned to each and every particular item.

Then there are the costs of lost opportunity. The most obvious of this is the lost profit from the sale. However, this might not be the only opportunity loss. What if the shirt is part of a $300 ensemble? How much in sales does the company lose in addition to the specific items taken? I'm not sure an accountant would be enough to figure all that out. The prosecution might have to bring in an economist.

In most cases, Expenses + Opportunity Costs = Price Tag. As well, the courts aren't going to waste all that time on valuation in larceny cases because there are so many of these cases that if it did the entire system would bog down.

Tomorrow: What if there is no price tag?


1 Usually, but not always. Sometimes just stealing a specific item is a felony. Examples of this would be a credit card, firearm or dog.

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