If someone has money that belongs to you and they keep it for themselves, is that “theft”? The legal answer to this question is trickier than you might think. While the average person would probably consider it theft, that word also has a very specific definition in civil and criminal law.

Is Sending a Customer a Zucchini Proof of “Criminal Intent”?

Indeed, Florida law makes a clear distinction between civil theft and conversion. The latter is often more applicable to business disputes. Conversion requires proof of four things:

  1. There is a specific and identifiable amount of money.
  2. The plaintiff has possession or an “immediate right” to possess that money.
  3. The defendant engaged in some “unauthorized act” that deprived the plaintiff of the money.
  4. The plaintiff demanded the return of the money and the defendant refused.

Civil theft is basically when conversion takes place with criminal intent. Under Florida law, a person commits criminal theft when they “knowingly” obtain or use the property of another with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of that property, even temporarily. So not all conversion is theft.

For example, if the plaintiff and defendant are involved in a contractual relationship, a breach of that agreement does not necessarily prove criminal intent. A federal judge in Florida recently addressed this subject. In this ongoing lawsuit, Delta Imports, LLC v. Wazwaz, the plaintiff is a distributor of e-cigarette products. The plaintiff placed an order with the defendant to purchase some of their e-cigarette products. According to the plaintiff, they wired the money for the order to the defendant, but the defendant never delivered the product or returned the plaintiff’s money. The defendant allegedly sent the plaintiff a “zucchini in a small box” instead.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant on some grounds, including breach of contract, conversion, and civil theft. Both sides moved for summary judgment on the civil theft count. The judge overseeing the case denied both motions and said the matter would have to go to a jury.

The judge explained that the plaintiff’s civil theft claim was sufficiently independent of its breach of contract claim. Simply failing to send the merchandise was a breach of contract. But the defendant’s alleged actions beyond that–including purportedly sending the zucchini as a “personal insult”–could lead a jury to conclude there was criminal intent behind the defendant’s actions. But the plaintiff would also first have to prove conversion, which is a necessary element of theft. Again, the judge believed there was enough of a factual dispute to submit the case to a jury.

Contact a Tampa, Florida, Civil Defense Lawyer Today

If you are involved in any sort of litigation where fraud or theft is an issue, it is important to work with an experienced litigator who understands the distinctions discussed above. A qualified Tampa civil litigation attorney can advise you whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant in a case. Contact Trombley & Hanes today to schedule an initial consultation with a member of our staff.