In Hong Kong, there are numerous theft cases being heard in Courts every day. As per the statistics provided by the Hong Kong Police Force, there are around 15,000 theft cases every year.
Theft may well be one of the oldest crime in human history. Legally speaking, a major element of this crime is a "dishonest" intent. In layman's terms, theft is caused by greed.
Legal analysis of Theft
Pursuant to section 2 of Cap. 210 of the Laws of Hong Kong titled "Theft Ordinance", a person commits theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.
As such, in theft cases, the Prosecution must prove the following 4 elements of the offence. For the sake of easier understanding, these elements are explained in much simplified and layman terms as below:
Whether or not the defendant acted dishonestly may be the most commonly argued point in theft cases.
In shoplifting cases, leaving the shop with knowingly unpaid goods is dishonest. Forgetting to pay for the goods is not dishonest.
In theft by finding cases, picking up a wallet found in the street and intending to keep it is dishonest. Having picked up the wallet, if the person intends to give it to the police station, there is no dishonesty.
In breach of trust cases such as embezzlement, that is, alleged theft by employee of the employer's assets, if the employee took away the goods from the company knowing he had no rights to do so, this is dishonest. If, on the other hand, the company had a policy that allowed employees to take away certain goods for themselves, for example some supermarkets do allow their staff to take away expired goods for their own consumption if they went through an often simple procedure, and the employee genuinely believed that he was entitled to take it home, then there is no dishonesty.
In simple terms, taking away an item is appropriation. Or if a person by whatever way has an item in his possession, to continue to keep it is also appropriation.
Property belonging to another：
It is self-explanatory in its plain and literal sense.
For example, in shoplifting cases, the Prosecution needs to prove that the unpaid goods belonged to the shop. But do not estimate this seemingly obvious point. We have handled cases where the defendants were acquitted because the Prosecution were unable to put forward sufficient evidence to prove that the goods did belong to the shop.
With the intention of permanently depriving the other of it：
Section 7 of the Theft Ordinance states that someone having the "intention is to treat the thing as his own to dispose of regardless of the other’s rights" is nevertheless to be regarded as having the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.
If you are charged with Theft, can you get away with it and not have a criminal record? What is O.N.E. Bindover?
A common form of theft is shoplifting (stealing in shops). CPH Legal handles a vast number of shoplifting cases. In cases involving relatively less severe facts, it is possible to apply via a lawyer to the DOJ for an O.N.E. Bindover order, and if successful, you will "get away" without getting a criminal record.
However, due to the prevalence of shoplifting, when you apply for a O.N.E. Bindover order, it is most important that your lawyer should set out in detail your otherwise good background and the circumstances leading up to your commission of the offence.
Common circumstances include:
- Momentary greed
- Waiting in a checkout queue for too long and decided to walk out of the shop
- Financial hardship such as unemployment or mortgage payments
- Work-related stress
- Study-related stress
- Psychological issues such as depression
- Family issues
While the above are not defences, they are difficult personal circumstances leading up to your commission of theft and if the prosecutor sympathises with you, the prosecutor may exercise a discretion and agree to the O.N.E. Bindover treatment as allowed under the Prosecution Code.
It is worth noting, though, that O.N.E. Bindover is an exception rather than the rule, even for a first time offender. Your lawyer should state your good personal background, circumstances leading up to the commission of the offence, and the level of remorse after the offence, so as to attempt to persuade the prosecutor to exercise his or her discretion to agree to O.N.E. Bindover.
Specifically in relation to shoplifting, a High Court Judge remarked in judgment in obiter that the prosecution could exercise greater discretion to agree to bind over first-time offenders in cases not of the most serious nature (HKSAR v 許靜宜 HCMA543/2015). The judgment is as follows (available only in Chinese as the judgment was rendered in Chinese only):
Is having forgotten to pay a good reason for O.N.E. Bindover?
Having forgotten to pay is a defence because it means that you did not have any dishonest intent.
However, if you, under caution, explained to the police that you merely forgot to pay, prosecutors tend not to agree to O.N.E. Bindover, because you have denied the offence.
A major condition for the O.N.E. Bindover order is that you must admit to the prosecution's facts in Court, namely you did steal the unpaid items. It poses technical difficulties if you maintain that you simply forgot to pay.
That being said, if your lawyer is able to provide a plausible explanation or even provide strong evidence to the prosecution, then it is still possible to dispose of the case by way of O.N.E. Bindover, or even what is known as straight O.N.E. such that the prosecution would directly withdraw the charge.
If the prosecution still does not agree to O.N.E. Bindover, you still have a chance to plead not guilty in Court and contest the case. You may testify in Court or your lawyer may make submissions that you simply forgot to pay and if the Court accepts your defence that you would be acquitted.
I really did not intend to steal anything. Can I contest the theft charge?
In every criminal case, the prosecution, namely the Department of Justice, bears the burden of proof and must prove all the elements of the charges beyond reasonable doubt.
In a trial for theft, the prosecution must prove both the actus reus (the physical act of taking the property) and the mens rea (the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property and dishonesty). The prosecution must prove that the defendant was dishonestly appropriating property belonging to another person with the intention of permanently depriving that person of the property.
The most common dispute in theft cases is whether the defendant actually had the necessary dishonest intent. Under the Theft Ordinance, a person does not have dishonest intent if he believes that he has a right in law to the property or if he believes that the owner would consent to him taking the property.
The current legal principles in Hong Kong regarding dishonesty comes from the case of R v Ghosh. When considering whether the defendant's conduct was dishonest, the court will consider two questions:
- Was the act one that an ordinary decent person would consider to be dishonest (the objective test)?
- And if so, must the defendant have realised that what he was doing was, by those standards, dishonest (the subjective test)?
In cases of shoplifting, a common defence is forgetfulness, where the defendant claims that he simply forgot to pay. This defence may negate the required mens rea.
In a shoplifting case, the prosecution can rely on direct evidence such as witness testimony from security personnel, CCTV footage, and the defendant's admission of guilt given under caution by the police, such as "I was greedy and stole the item for self consumption. Please give me a chance."
The direct evidence that the prosecution can rely on to prove the defendant's dishonest intent is his admission of guilt or confession under caution.
If there is no admission of guilt evidence, such as if the defendant remains silent under caution, denies the allegation of theft, or the court rules that the admission of guilt was not voluntary and cannot be admitted as evidence in court (please see the section on "special issues" in the linked article), the prosecution can still rely on circumstantial evidence to persuade the court that the only reasonable inference is that the defendant had dishonest intent.
In such trials, in most cases, defendants will choose to testify in court and explain their version of events, including whether they were feeling unwell beforehand, had taken medication, or were distracted while shopping, which might have caused them to forget to pay for the goods. If the court cannot exclude the possibility that the defendant's explanation is truthful, the defendant will be acquitted and released without any penalty or criminal record.
For more information on the trial process in criminal cases, please click the linked article .
What should I do now that I am facing a charge of Theft?
Upon the prosecution and charge of theft by the police, the bail sheet will indicate the court date. The Court process in Magistrates' Courts progresses swiftly. Therefore, if you find yourself facing a charge of theft, it is advisable to promptly seek legal advice from solicitors without delay. With legal advice, you should then consider whether it is possible to apply for an O.N.E. Bindover, or whether you should prepare for mitigation in Court. Alternatively, you may wish to prepare for contesting the charge and mounting a defence in trial.
CPH Legal has extensive experience in handling voluminous cases of theft, including shoplifting, theft by finding, cases involving breach of trust and embezzlement. We have represented both the Defence and the Prosecution (that is, the police and the Department of Justice) and are well-versed in the relevant legal principles as well as the considerations of the Court and the Department of Justice.
If you or a family member are facing a theft charge, and wish to obtain urgent legal advice, apply for O.N.E. Bindover, and/or representation in Court, you can contact our WhatsApp hotline 6103 0006 or email us to set up a free WhatsApp consultation.