When attorneys are asked legal questions, most often the answer is “it depends.” This response might seem like lawyerly waffling, but it’s true. Cases can come down to very specific facts and involve novel situations, and it’s usually unclear how the court will interpret and apply the law in those instances.
This was the situation in State v. Andrews, an interesting case involving larceny. Andrews had taken property from two women’s purses in a medical office. The women were lying face down on a table, with their purses about five feet away in the corner. Andrews’ defense at trial argued that misdemeanor larceny, as opposed to “larceny from the person” applied. The difference between the two crimes is just one element, but the difference in sentencing for Andrews was many years. Misdemeanor larceny is the taking of property from another person, but “larceny of the person” requires that the property be either attached to the person, or “under their protection” and “in their presence” at the time of the taking. At trial, Andrews was convicted of “larceny of the person,” and sentenced to over 15 years.
On appeal, attorney Mark Hayes successfully argued that “larceny of the person” did not apply. Mr. Andrews was re-sentenced on a misdemeanor charge, which changed his long prison sentence into a sentence of time-served.
After an exhaustive review of case law, Attorney Hayes came to several original conclusions about larceny from the person. For example, in every case where the North Carolina Court of Appeals had upheld larceny from the person, the victims could have readily reached the objects without moving their feet. In this case, attorney Hayes noted the women would have had to raise themselves up off the table, dismount the table, and then walk five feet before reaching the items. Of course, the law doesn’t explicitly state that victims must be able to readily reach objects without moving their feet, but drawing this conclusion helped the court understand what “from the person” means when applied to actual circumstances. Attorney Hayes also observed another pattern with regard to distance—the Court of Appeals had consistently emphasized being within a “hand’s reach” of the item. Neither of these women met this criteria, and the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court.
In this case, the facts came down to several specific details, such as the physical distance between the women and their property. The law didn’t describe specifically what “within their presence” means, much less delineate a precise, measurable distance. Instead, both parties had to argue their interpretation of the law to the court. In the future, perhaps the court would consider other ways of interpreting and measuring “under their protection,” by taking into account the time and difficulty it would take to reach the item, for example.