People v. Davis

19 Cal.4th 301, 965 P.2d 1165 (1998)

Quick Summary

Quick Summary Icon

Kenneth Davis (defendant) executed a deceitful plan in a Mervyn’s store by taking a shirt and requesting a fraudulent refund. The State of California (plaintiff) charged him with petty theft with a prior conviction. After his conviction and appeal, the case reached the California Supreme Court.

The dispute revolved around whether Davis’s intention to temporarily possess the shirt for a refund constituted larceny.

The Supreme Court concluded that his actions amounted to theft by larceny because he intended to permanently deprive Mervyn’s of property through deceitful means.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Kenneth Davis (defendant) entered a Mervyn’s department store with the intention of fraudulently obtaining a refund. He selected a shirt from the sales floor, pretending it was a gift for his father that did not fit, and requested a refund at the sales counter. Davis was under surveillance by store security agent Carol German, who had observed his actions and directed the cashier to issue a store credit voucher to Davis.

As Davis left the counter with the voucher, he was detained by German. The State of California (plaintiff) subsequently charged Davis with petty theft with a prior theft-related conviction. Davis’s defense argued that he could only be convicted of an attempted petty theft, not actual theft, because he never intended to permanently deprive Mervyn’s of the shirt, only to temporarily possess it to obtain a refund.

The court, however, denied this motion and the jury convicted him of petty theft with a prior. Davis appealed the conviction, which led to the review by the California Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

History Icon
  1. Davis was observed by store security while engaging in deceptive conduct in Mervyn’s department store.
  2. He was charged and convicted of petty theft with a prior theft-related conviction at trial.
  3. Davis appealed the conviction, asserting that he could only be guilty of attempted theft.
  4. The Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction.
  5. Davis petitioned the California Supreme Court for review, which led to this case.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether Kenneth Davis committed theft by larceny when he took possession of a shirt from Mervyn’s department store with the intent to ‘return’ it for a refund without the store’s consent.

Rule of Law

Rule Icon

The legal principle at stake is whether intent to temporarily deprive a store of merchandise, with the aim of fraudulently obtaining a refund or credit, constitutes theft by larceny under California law.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The California Supreme Court reviewed the case to determine if Davis’s actions constituted theft by larceny. The court considered whether Mervyn’s had consented to Davis taking possession of the shirt, and whether Davis intended to permanently deprive the store of its property.

The court concluded that although stores consent to customers handling merchandise with intent to purchase, they do not consent to customers taking merchandise with the intent to claim a fraudulent refund.

The court further reasoned that Davis’s intent to sell the property back to its owner under false pretenses demonstrated an assertion of ownership and an intent to permanently deprive. Furthermore, by creating a condition for the return of the property (the store issuing a refund), Davis assumed dominion over it and manifested an intent to permanently deprive Mervyn’s of its property unless his demands were met.


Conclusion Icon

The California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal, holding that Kenneth Davis was guilty of theft by trespassory larceny when he took a shirt from Mervyn’s with the intent to fraudulently obtain a refund.

Key Takeaways

Takeaway Icon
  1. Theft by larceny can occur even if there is an intent to temporarily deprive the owner of property, provided there is an element of deceit or coercion involved.
  2. Consent for handling merchandise in stores does not extend to actions intended to defraud the store.
  3. The act of fraudulently obtaining a refund or credit from a store by pretending to own merchandise can be classified as trespassory larceny under California law.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes trespassory taking in the context of larceny?

Trespassory taking occurs when a person unlawfully takes or appropriates someone else’s property without consent and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it. This is an essential element of larceny, and consent obtained by deception does not negate the trespassory nature of the act.

  • For example: A person who takes a neighbor’s bicycle from their yard, intending to keep it and tell the neighbor it was stolen, has committed a trespassory taking.

Does intent to return property negate criminal liability for theft?

The intent to return property does not necessarily negate criminal liability for theft. If taking the property was accompanied by deceit or without the owner’s consent, and with the intent to exert control over it even temporarily, it can still constitute theft.

  • For example: Borrowing a car without permission with the plan to return it after a joyride still constitutes unauthorized use of a vehicle and can be charged as theft.

How does conditional intent affect the classification of a theft?

Conditional intent refers to an individual’s intention to deprive an owner of their property only under certain conditions. In theft cases, if a person intends to withhold property unless certain demands are met, this may be sufficient to constitute larceny, as it demonstrates an intention to exert unauthorized control over the property.

  • For example: An employee who embezzles company funds with the intention to repay them only if they win at gambling is still guilty of theft, as they conditionally intend to deprive the company of its assets.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Criminal Law