Novel Arguments Lead to Dismissal of Felony Theft Charge

The Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC continue to obtain successful results in the courtroom. In Commonwealth v. D., attorney Zak Goldstein recently obtained the dismissal of all charges against the defendant in a case of felony theft and receiving stolen property. Attorney Goldstein obtained this result by filing pre-trial motions to ensure that the Commonwealth could not lower its burden of proof below the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt and arguing that the Commonwealth had already improperly used a civil statute in a criminal case at the preliminary hearing.  

Theft of Money in a Joint Bank Account

Client D., a licensed professional with no prior record, was charged in state court with Theft by Unlawful Taking and Receiving Stolen Property as felonies of the third degree for withdrawing money from a bank account which was held jointly with her ex-husband. D. and the complainant had been married for nearly twenty years, and at some point during the marriage, the complainant opened a bank account which was used as the family account throughout the marriage. Both spouses deposited their paychecks into the account, and at some point prior to the divorce, the complainant officially added D.’s name to the account. D.’s name was placed on the checks, her money would be regularly deposited into the account, and she used the account just as the complainant did.

Ultimately, D. and the complainant got divorced. They sold the marital home, and half of the proceeds were deposited in the account. After the sale and the deposit, the parties executed a property settlement agreement and got divorced. The property settlement agreement did not specify what would happen to money held in joint bank accounts, but it did state that money held in individual accounts would belong to the individual on the account. The complainant continued to use the account as his own, but he did not take D.’s name off of the account itself, instruct her to stop using it, or try to close the account. He did remove D.’s name from the checks that he used, and D. did not use the account for approximately two years.

Approximately two years after the divorce, the Commonwealth charged D. with theft and receiving stolen property for allegedly withdrawing funds from the account. The complainant filed a report with the local police department, and when the Detective investigated, D. allegedly told the detective that her name was on the account, she had taken the money, and she had the right to do so. Despite the fact that her name was still on the account, the Detective ultimately charged D. with felony Theft by Unlawful Taking and Receiving Stolen Property.   

The Multiple Party Account Statute

Fortunately, D. retained Attorney Zak Goldstein of Goldstein Mehta LLC. At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth convinced the Magisterial District Justice to hold the case for court and send the case to trial in the Court of Common Pleas. The Commonwealth argued that the complainant was the one who had deposited the money in the account, and the money that was withdrawn was the complainant’s share of the proceeds from the house sale. The Commonwealth further argued that in finding that the money belonged to the complainant, the Magisterial District Justice should rely on Pennsylvania’s joint checking account statute (“The Multiple Party Account Statute”). The statute, which is codified at 20 Pa.C.S. § 6303, states that “A joint account belongs, during the lifetime of all parties, to the parties in proportion to the net contributions by each to the sum on deposit, unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a different intent.” The Commonwealth could not point to an appellate case in which the statute had been used in a Pennsylvania criminal prosecution, but the Magisterial District Justice allowed the case to proceed.  

Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus

Immediately after the preliminary hearing, Attorney Goldstein filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, commonly called a Motion to Quash in Philadelphia, asking the Court of Common Pleas judge to reverse the decision of the Magisterial District Justice and dismiss the charges because the Commonwealth failed to show that the defendant had committed a crime. Attorney Goldstein’s Petition first argued that the Commonwealth failed to show that the money actually belonged to the complainant because the settlement agreement did not address joint bank accounts, the complainant did not remove the defendant from the account, and the settlement agreement was reached after the money had already been placed in the account.

Second, Attorney Goldstein argued that the preliminary hearing evidence was insufficient because the Theft and Receiving Stolen Property statutes require that the defendant have acted with guilty knowledge. In other words, the defendant must know that the money belonged to someone else. Given that D. allegedly withdrew the money in person at the bank using her own identification and freely told the Detective that she did it because it was her money, there was no evidence presented at the preliminary hearing that D. had the necessary guilty knowledge.

Finally, Attorney Goldstein argued a novel issue of first impression: namely, whether the Joint Checking Account statute could constitutionally be applied in a criminal prosecution. The Pennsylvania and Federal Constitutions both require that any defendant be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt and that the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving the defendant’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the Joint Checking Account statute creates a presumption that the money deposited in a joint checking account belongs to the person who deposited it and shifts the burden to the defendant to prove otherwise by clear and convincing evidence, it unconstitutionally shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant and lowers the standard of proof from beyond a reasonable doubt to clear and convincing evidence.

Following the filing of the motion to dismiss, the Commonwealth made an excellent offer to the defendant which would have resulted in the dismissal of charges in exchange for restitution and paying the money back. Despite the guarantee that the charges would be dismissed, D. rejected the offer and relied upon Attorney Goldstein to win the case and prove her innocence. 

The Court heard oral argument from the Commonwealth and defense and took some additional testimony at a hearing on the motion. Ultimately, the Court of Common Pleas thoroughly rejected the Commonwealth’s arguments and dismissed the entire case against D. The Court concluded that the Commonwealth had failed to show that the money belonged to the complainant at the preliminary hearing, and therefore the Magisterial District Justice erred in holding the case for court. Due to Attorney Goldstein’s creative and persuasive arguments, D. will now be eligible for an expungement of the arrest and no longer faces the risk of jail time and a conviction on career-destroying felony Theft and Receiving Stolen Property charges. Although it had the option to do so, the Commonwealth did not appeal. 

How Our Theft Lawyers Can Help in Complex Criminal Cases

If you are facing criminal charges, the Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys of Goldstein Mehta LLC will fight for you. Our defense lawyers thrive in situations in which the stakes are the highest, and we excel in developing the strongest possible defenses for our clients. We do not blink just because the Commonwealth makes a good offer, and we will fight to prove your innocence both in comprehensive, written briefs and in argument in the court room. Properly representing the defendant in a criminal case often involves far more than just claiming that the defendant didn't do it. In many cases, there are strong legal defenses to the charges and it is not necessary to contest the prosecution's version of the facts. Our criminal defense lawyers will thoroughly evaluate your case, present you with all of your options, and advise you about which may be the most likely to work for you. We can help with all types of criminal charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Call 267-225-2545 for a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session.    

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Theft Lawyer in Philadelphia

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Theft Lawyer in Philadelphia