Church Property

A Florida court ruled that a student who refused to return a school-owned laptop computer could be charged with theft.

State v. Siegel, 778 So.2d 426 (Fla. App. 2001)

Key point. Former church employees who refuse to return church-owned property that had been in their lawful possession may be guilty of the crime of embezzlement.

A Florida court ruled that a student who refused to return a school-owned laptop computer could be charged with theft. This case is directly relevant to churches that provide computers to staff members. A university student was allowed to use a laptop computer owned by the university. The student was expelled by the university for submitting fraudulent expenses for reimbursement as a member of a student organization. After his expulsion, university officials demanded that the student return the laptop computer. He refused to do so and was later charged with theft. The indictment charged that while in lawful possession of the computer the student formed the intent to appropriate the property to his own use. The trial court dismissed the case on the ground that when the student first received the laptop computer he did not have the criminal intent to deprive the university of it.

The state theft statute states that "a person commits theft if he or she knowingly obtains or uses the property of another with intent to, either temporarily or permanently, deprive the other person of a right to the property or a benefit from the property." The statute defines "obtains or uses" to include "conduct previously known as stealing; larceny; purloining; abstracting; embezzlement; misapplication; misappropriation; conversion; or obtaining money or property by false pretenses, fraud, or deception." The court noted that in certain kinds of theft cases, like larceny or false pretenses, criminal intent must be formed at the time of the original possession of the property. However, the definition of theft under the statute also includes the crime of embezzlement. Unlike the crimes of larceny and false pretenses, "embezzlement does not require that the defendant have criminal intent when he obtains the property in question." The court defined embezzlement as the fraudulent taking of the property of another "by one who is already in lawful possession of it." The state claimed that the student was in lawful possession of the university's laptop computer, and then refused to return it when the university asked him to do so. This conduct, the court concluded, "arguably worked as an attempt to fraudulently convert the computer to his possession."

What this means for churches

Many churches have purchased laptop computers for staff members for use in performing their duties on behalf of the church. If the church terminates the employment of such a person, or the person voluntarily resigns, the church's laptop computer ordinarily will be returned. However, as this case illustrates, if the former employee refuses to return the computer, then this act may constitute theft or embezzlement subjecting him or her to criminal prosecution. Church leaders should keep this point in mind when attempting to persuade a former employee to return a church computer, or any other church property.

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