You may not know it, but the item you just bought via eBay or Craigslist may have been stolen. But don't worry. While there are laws against receiving stolen goods, they typically state that the purchaser or receiver must know (or should know) that the items are stolen.
So what can happen if you unknowingly buy stolen goods (especially for purchases that, in hindsight, just seemed too good to be true)? Can you get arrested? The answer depends on your specific situation. Here are a few possibilities:
No Knowledge, Probably No Crime
State laws differ on the crime of buying, selling, and/or receiving stolen property, but a common thread persists: The receiver of the stolen property must know that it is stolen.
California, for example, levies a misdemeanor penalty against those who buy or receive stolen property, but only "knowing the property to be so stolen." In New York as well, criminal prohibitions against possessing stolen property typically apply to those who "knowingly" possess it, not those who unwittingly buy stolen goods.
The law typically gives a break to those who unknowingly buy goods which are the fruits of theft, but there is a line.
Specific Laws for 2nd-Hand Sellers, Buyers
Pawn shops, swap meets, and flea markets are havens for thieves looking to fence stolen merchandise. And while the average flea market shopper will likely be protected from criminal prosecution, the same cannot be said for pawn shop owners and flea market vendors.
Most states require that anyone in the business of selling second-hand property (thrift stores, flea markets, pawn shops, etc.) to make a reasonable inquiry into whether a seller has legal right to the property. States like Texas go even further, requiring that buyers of second-hand merchandise record the seller's name, address, and physical description as well as obtain a signed warranty that the seller has right to possess the property.
If something about a certain item smells fishy, a vendor or pawn shop cannot simply play dumb and purchase the item. Actions that amount to recklessness in purchasing potentially stolen goods may lead to criminal charges.
Return and Restitution
Although you will likely not be charged with a crime, if you unknowingly bought stolen goods, you will probably have to return them to the rightful owner. The thief (or thieves) will then owe you the purchase price in restitution.
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