5-finger discounts galore! Most major thefts no longer a felony in Missouri

© Jeff Topping
In what is sure to set an interesting precedent, a woman’s multiple felony convictions for firearm theft were reduced to misdemeanors after the Missouri Supreme Court decided the state’s criminal code was too vague to designate certain crimes as felonies.

The ruling in State v. Bazell could be the best news some criminal defense attorneys have received since Missouri Governor Jay Nixon was appointed to a public defender’s case. The state’s Supreme Court looked at the case of Amanda Bazell, a woman who had received two felony convictions that stemmed from a burglary. However, Bazell was lucky enough to have a lawyer that noticed the state’s criminal code that designates thefts as felonies was unclear.

Under section 570.030.1,1 a person commits the crime of stealing when she appropriates the property or services of another with the purpose to deprive the owner thereof,” the Supreme Court wrote.

It’s this section that determines whether or not theft becomes a class C felony, but “the definition of stealing in section 570.030.1 is clear and unambiguous, and it does not include the value of the property or services appropriated as an element of the offense.

In layman’s terms, a stealing crime can be enhanced to a felony in cases “in which the value of the property or services is an element,” according to an amendment in subsection 3. However, that is not the definition in subparagraph 1.

It wasn’t just Bazell who got lucky with this ruling. Her public defender, Ellen H. Flottman, told Talking Points Memo that the opinion ruling is broad enough to not only apply to firearms but other stealing crimes defined as felonies in the aforementioned section.

Those are going to be misdemeanors as well,” she said.

The poorly worded amendment was added in 2002 and has flown under the radar until now. However, now that the cat is out of the bag, its effects are already being seen.

We’ve got several [appeals] in our office that we’re looking at really quickly to fix that,” Flottman said.

A memo sent by the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office and obtained by Talking Points Memo acknowledged the accomplishment, but encouraged attorneys to curb their enthusiasm.

The Public Defender’s Office noted that not all stealing felonies could be reduced to misdemeanors. However, the memo encouraged defenders to stop encouraging clients to plead guilty to felony charges of theft – but only if it is directly related to.

The celebration may be short-lived, however. The Missouri legislature took on rewriting its criminal code in 2014 and stripped the language that created the loophole. The new code goes into effect on January 1, 2017. “The problematic language is not in the new statute, so it does have an end,” Flottman said.