A loophole in Missouri's criminal code means most stealing cases are no longer felonies.
On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court reduced multiple felonies for a woman convicted of stealing firearms to misdemeanors, citing vague language written into the state's criminal code in 2002.
The court looked at the case of Amanda Bazell, who was convicted of felony stealing. Her lawyer noticed that the language in the criminal code that designates stealing offenses as felonies was unclear. The court agreed.
Here's what the court's opinion states:
"Under section 570.030.1 a person commits the crime of stealing when she appropriates the property or services of another with the purpose to deprive the owner thereof. Section 570.030.3 provides for the enhancement to a class C felony of 'any offense in which the value of the property of services is an element' if certain conditions are met. 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."
Basically, because stealing isn't defined with a value of property or services, the enhancement doesn't apply.
This is big news for public defenders across the state. Ruth Petsch, Jackson County's chief public defender, says she was actually in the middle of a stealing case that had been enhanced to a felony by this statute when she read the email notifying all public defenders of the Supreme Court's ruling.
She says her office has plead or had trials for at least 10,000 felony stealing cases since 2002, when the language in question was added.
"It really means we need to reach out to all these people over the years who have felony convictions for felony stealing and its quite possible that they should not [have those convictions]," Petsch told Steve Kraske on KCUR's Up To Date.
So, does this mean a free-for-all on theft in Missouri?
Petsch says she doubts it. She says prosecutors have a lot of different ways to charge people for a single crime.
"I'm told this morning that there were some stealings that they were amending either to forgeries or to receiving stolen property and the statutes on those don't mirror this stealing statute," she says.
The loophole also has an expiration date. Back in 2014, the Missouri legislature rewrote the criminal code and removed the problematic language. That goes into effect on January 1, 2017.
In the meantime, public defenders and criminal defense lawyers could be very busy. Anyone who was charged with this kind of felony after 2002 may have the opportunity to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter for KCUR. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig.