United States v. Mafnas

701 F.2d 83 (9th Cir. 1983)

Quick Summary

Quick Summary Icon

Jose Cepeda Mafnas (defendant) was employed to transport money bags for two banks and stole money from these bags on three occasions. The central issue was whether his actions constituted larceny under federal law.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed Mafnas’s conviction, finding that his act of taking money from the bags was indeed larceny because he only had custody, not possession, of the bags and their contents.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Jose Cepeda Mafnas (defendant), an employee of the Guam Armored Car Service, was tasked with the responsibility of transporting money bags for the Bank of Hawaii and the Bank of America. In the course of his duties, Mafnas took advantage of his position and removed money from these bags during three separate incidents.

The federal statute under which Mafnas was tried prohibits the intentional theft of money from a bank. The central question in Mafnas’s conviction revolved around whether his actions constituted larceny or embezzlement, given that he had lawful access to the money bags when he committed the theft.

Procedural Posture and History

History Icon
  1. Mafnas was convicted in the U.S. District Court of Guam for stealing money from federally insured banks.
  2. He appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the act of taking money by Mafnas from the money bags he was transporting for his employer constituted larceny under 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b).

Rule of Law

Rule Icon

The statute in question, 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b), interprets theft from a bank as a crime when it involves a trespassory taking, aligning with the common law definition of larceny.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The court examined historical common law principles to differentiate between ‘possession’ and ‘custody.’ It was established that if an individual is entrusted with property for a specific purpose, such as delivery, they hold only custody, not possession. Thus, if they decide to keep the property for themselves, it qualifies as larceny.

The court found that Mafnas was given temporary custody to deliver the money bags and his subsequent unauthorized taking of the money constituted larceny. This interpretation followed precedents such as United States v. Pruitt, where similar circumstances led to a larceny conviction.

The court also rejected Mafnas’s argument that he should be considered as a bailee with possession, noting that even bailees commit larceny if they ‘break bulk’ by taking contents from a package they are transporting.


Conclusion Icon

The court affirmed Mafnas’s conviction for larceny as he was found to have committed a trespassory taking, which fell under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(b).

Key Takeaways

Takeaway Icon
  1. The distinction between ‘possession’ and ‘custody’ is crucial in determining whether a taking constitutes larceny or embezzlement under common law principles.
  2. A person who has custody of property for a specific purpose commits larceny if they unlawfully take that property for themselves.
  3. A bailee who ‘breaks bulk’ by opening and taking from a container they are transporting commits larceny because they do not have possession of the contents.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What legal consequences may arise when a person entrusted with property misappropriates it?

The person may face criminal charges for larceny or embezzlement, depending on whether they had ‘possession’ or merely ‘custody’ of the property at the time. The distinction between possession and custody is critical for such charges; larceny generally involves an individual taking property they do not have rightful control over, while embezzlement involves the fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it is entrusted.

  • For example:A delivery driver who takes money from the packages they are supposed to deliver commits larceny, as they only have custody for the purpose of delivery and no legal right to use the content.

How is 'possession' distinguished from 'custody' in the context of property law?

‘Possession’ implies a degree of control over property that includes the right to use it at one’s own discretion, while ‘custody’ means holding someone else’s property with limited rights, usually for a specific purpose or function. Someone with custody should not use the property outside of its intended purpose.

  • For example:An art transporter who has custodial responsibility cannot decide to hang an artwork in their home; doing so would exceed their custodial rights and could result in a charge of larceny.

What defenses might a person charged with theft from their employer argue?

A possible defense might be a claim of right or belief in ownership or permission to use the employer’s property. However, this defense must be substantiated with credible evidence. A lack of intent to permanently deprive the employer of the property could also be argued if applicable.

  • For example:If an employee borrows a company vehicle for company business but returns it later than agreed, they may argue that it was not theft due to their initial legitimate usage rights.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Criminal Law