Recent Possession Doctrine
The recent possession doctrine allows a jury to infer larceny based on a person’s possession of stolen property. To rely on this doctrine, three elements must be shown:
- that the property was stolen
- that the person possessed the stolen property
- that the person possessed the stolen property “so soon after it was stolen and under such circumstances as to make it unlikely that he obtained possession honestly."
The possession element under the recent possession doctrine does not require actual physical possession of the property. Actual possession exists, for example, when a person has the property on his person, such as in a bag or a pocket. However, “constructive possession” is sufficient to prove the element of possession. “Constructive possession exists when the defendant, while not having actual possession, has the intent and capability to maintain control and dominion over the property.” An example of constructive possession might be a person who keeps the property in a locked storage unit.
How long is too long after the theft for possession to qualify as recent under the doctrine? There are no firm rules regarding the timing between the possession and the theft. Courts have instead required that the timing be sufficiently close so as to make it unlikely that the person obtained possession of the property honestly. Typical cases where the doctrine has been applied range from 24 hours to several days between the theft and the possession of the property. However, the North Carolina Court of Appeals applied the doctrine in a case where a defendant possessed a video camera 21 days after a break-in. A shorter period of time between the possession and the theft is required for property that is normally and commonly traded in lawful channels. When the property stolen is not normally and commonly traded in lawful channels, a longer period of time between the possession and the theft is permitted. Examples of property not normally and commonly traded in lawful channels are a unique tool and commercial restaurant equipment.