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Bike Thief Apologizes, but is 'Borrowing' a Defense?

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on April 26, 2013 9:58 AM

Bike theft is at the center of every bicyclist's sweat-soaked nightmares, but one recent case ended with an endearing apology that's gone viral.

The anonymous thief had the courtesy to return the bike, attaching a handwritten letter of apology for getting "straight white girl wasted" and being "too broke to afford a cab, so I borrowed your bike without asking."

"It was a lusciously smooth ride from what I remember," the thief continued. She (if she is indeed a she) also left a coupon for a free lava cake at Domino's! Aw, shucks.

So is this Apologetic Broke Bike Thief even a thief?

A bike theft happens when a person:

  1. Takes someone else's bike,
  2. Without permission,
  3. With the intent to never give it back to the owner, at the time of taking.

It's the intent element where most of the legal challenges crop up. If a person has the intent to not return the bike when they're taking it, that counts as intent to permanently deprive -- which means bike thievery!

That's why returning stolen property doesn't usually work as a defense to theft. But it can help make the thief look sympathetic, which works well for a plea deal or a reduction in the charges.

But as for the Broke Bike Thief, she may have a couple other theft defenses available to her, such as:

  1. The "borrowing" defense. If the Bike Thief knew that she wasn't going to keep the bike when she drunkenly took off with it, then that could be a defense. That's because she didn't have the necessary intent to keep the bike forever at the time of taking. Not surprisingly, it's pretty common to defend theft charges by claiming the property was just being "borrowed."

  2. The "wasted" defense. If the Bike Thief can show that she was inebriated when the theft happened, that could also show a lack of intent to permanently deprive the owner of the bike. For example, our Drunk Bike Thief could argue that she mistakenly thought the bike was hers -- though her letter gives a pretty detailed explanation of why she stole borrowed it. But this defense often doesn't work.

  3. The "Domino's lava cake coupon" defense. Just kidding. But seriously, this ought to be a complete defense to theft.

Of course, "Broke Bike Borrower" doesn't have the same ring to it. But at least it's easier to spell than "thief" -- which the signed "Bike Theif [sic]" apparently had a tough time with, even after sobering up...

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