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Can you be found guilty of possessing a stolen credit card in Washington after the card has been cancelled?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jul 10, 2019 | 0 Comments

Sometimes, in the law, the “correct” legal decision ends up being the decision that simply makes logical sense. In other words, most people—even if they had no legal knowledge whatsoever—would read the appellate opinion and say: “yeah, obviously.”

That's why Mary Sandoval lost her appeal after being convicted of possession of stolen property in Clark County Superior Court.

In April 2018, Sandoval was arrested with a stolen credit card. The card had been reported stolen in early February. At that time, the card was active. Shortly thereafter, the card's owner cancelled the credit card. (The facts in State v. Sandoval are admittedly more complicated than this, but none of them is relevant here).

The State charged Sandoval with possession of stolen property in the second degree (i.e. the stolen credit card). The case proceeded to a jury trial. As in all criminal cases, before jurors began deliberating, the trial judge instructed the jury on the law, and specifically defined the elements of possession of stolen property.

To prove the defendant guilt, the court explained, the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the stolen property found on Sandoval was an “access device.” The judge further defined an access device as any card or account number that “can be used” to obtain “money, goods, services, or anything of value.”

The judge also specifically defined the phrase “can be used.” This phrase means “the status of the access device when it was last in possession of its lawful owner, regardless of its status at a later time.”

The jury found Sandoval guilty. She appealed.

On appeal, Sandoval argued that the judge improperly defined the phrase “access device.” You can't be guilty of possessing an “access device,” Sandoval argued, unless the card is able to be used to obtain something of value when found on the defendant, not when last in possession of the lawful owner. 

The case of State v. Sandoval, therefore, turned on the meaning of the phrase “can be used.” When the legislature defines a term, appellate judges sit back and smile. They simply read the statute, read the definition, and apply the definition to the facts of the case. But the legislature, in defining the term “access device” in RCW 9A.56.010 didn't define the phrase “can be used” (presumably because it seemed obvious). 

So the court turned to other court decisions to figure out the answer.

In this case, Division 2 looked north to Division 1 and found the answer in a case called Schloredt. In Schloredt, the appellate judges considered an identical argument, and ruled against the defendant. Access device means “the status of the access device when last in possession of the lawful owner.” Basically, Division 2 analyzed Division 1's opinion and wrote: “yeah, works for us.”

Most importantly, Division 2 concluded that ruling for Sandoval would lead to an absurd and ridiculous result. Take this scenario:

The victim realizes his card's been stolen and immediately cancels the card. The defendant, arrested two days later, claims: “Sorry, the card doesn't even work. I tried to use it to steal stuff, and it's been deactivated. So I didn't really steal anything of value, so I didn't commit a crime.”

In other words, the defendant is rewarded because she couldn't commit the crime only because the victim acted responsibly.

Now, of course, it would be a different story if Sandoval had stolen an already cancelled or un-activated card. In that case, the so-called “access device” by definition never had the ability to “access” anything of value to begin with. But this isn't the fact pattern in Sandoval. The card at issue was linked to an active account, which means goods could be purchased.

For these reasons, the Court affirmed Sandoval's conviction.  

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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