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On the “Claim of Right” Defense in D.C.

Jamison KoehlerD.C. Superior Court, Defenses to Criminal Charges, Legal Concepts/Principles, Opinions/Cases

It is a valid defense to a theft charge that you believed in good faith that you owned the property in question.  This is the so-called “claim of right” defense.  It is, however, unclear if you can assert this right on behalf of someone else.  And a claim of right defense will fail if the accused takes more than the property whose ownership is disputed.  This was the D.C. Court of Appeals’ finding in its recent opinion, Steven Wilson v. United States, 266 A.3d 228 (D.C. 2022). 

Wilson was charged with showing up with two other people at the complainant’s apartment and pistol-whipping him with a handgun while the other two people took property from the apartment.  Ultimately convicted of conspiracy to commit burglary, unarmed kidnapping, unarmed first-degree burglary with the intent to assault and commit theft, and other offenses, Wilson argued on appeal, among other things, that the trial court refused to instruct the jury on a claim of right defense.

The bar for issuing a jury instruction on a theory of the case that negates guilt is extremely low:  The defendant must only show that the instruction is supported by some evidence, however weak.  The trial court thus erred when it refused to give the instruction.  At the same time, the D.C. Court of Appeals concluded, this error was “harmless”; that is, it did not affect the outcome in any meaningful way.

The “claim of right” defense was first spelled out in D.C. in Richardson v. United States, 403 F.2d 574, 576 (D.C. Cir 1968).  According to that case, a defendant cannot be guilty of crimes for which a specific intent to steal is an element of the offense “unless he had the specific intent to take the property of another.”  Therefore, a defendant is entitled to a claim of right defense if s/he has a good faith believe that s/he is entitled to the property s/he is charged with taking.

In this case, Wilson claimed that, because he only intended to help his friend recover her own property, he lacked specific intent to steal.  Writes the D.C. Court of Appeals:

This court has not considered whether a defendant can assert a claim of right defense on behalf of a third party who has authorized the defendant to reclaim property.  However, assuming the viability of such a claim, it is doubtful in this case whether this court need reach that question because a defendant cannot assert the claim of right defense when he takes property that he did not believe in good faith belonged to him.

Judge Jose Lopez presided at trial. Mr. Wilson was represented at trial by Frances D’Antuono and on appeal by Cecily Baskir.