Can O.J. Simpson legally steal back his own property?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 19 2007 3:57 PM

O.J.'s Vegas Defense

Can you legally steal your own property?

O.J. Simpson. Click image to expand.
O.J. Simpson enters a Las Vegas courtroom

Las Vegas police charged O.J. Simpson with 10 felonies and one misdemeanor (PDF) in connection with an alleged armed robbery in a room at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino last Thursday evening. Simpson says he was only engaged in a "sting operation" to retrieve sports memorabilia that belonged to him. He claimed that he had the right to self-help because the items were wrongfully taken from him. Yesterday, Yale Galanter, Simpson's defense lawyer, previewed his legal strategy, saying that you "can't rob something that is yours." Would Simpson really have the right to steal back something that was stolen from him?

Maybe, but it depends on Nevada law. Simpson's claim that he had the right to take back his own property is a defense to theft and robbery charges under the common law developed over the years by the courts. This "claim of right" defense provides that you can't be found to have the intent necessary to steal if you have a good faith belief that the property you take belongs to you, even if that belief is mistaken. Simply put, without intent there can be no crime.

It's unclear, however, whether this common-law tradition applies in the state of Nevada. Its law doesn't appear to spell out whether claim of right is available to those charged with crimes. But local lawmakers seem to have incorporated it into their burglary statute. That crime is defined as the theft under specific circumstances of personal goods or property "owned by another person." If the memorabilia that Simpson took did, in fact, belong to him, he may well have a solid defense, since he would not have taken anything owned by another person. Having done so while in the possession of a deadly weapon, however, may complicate the matter.

But the claim of right defense won't necessarily get Simpson off the hook. In addition to burglary, he's also charged with robbery, which Nevada law classifies as a crime against a person, as opposed to a crime against property (like burglary). Robbery focuses on the act of physically taking property from the "person of another," so a claim of right to the property isn't likely to apply. Even if it does, it surely won't work as a defense to the litany of other serious crimes Simpson has been charged with, including first-degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon and assault with a deadly weapon.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Harlan Protass is a criminal defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where he teaches about sentencing.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.