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Law School Case Brief

Commonwealth v. McGorty - 114 Mass. 299 (1873)

Rule:

Possession of stolen property, under certain circumstances, gives rise to the presumption that the possessor is the person who took it from the house of the victim.

Facts:

Defendants Michael McGorty and Dennis Carney were discovered walking near the scene of a recent burglary shortly after midnight with certain items in their possession that were later identified as having been taken from the burglarized residence. Carney attempted to cast aside a box of cigars that were later identified as having belonged to Mrs. Finnegan, the victim of the burglary. Defendants, having given unsatisfactory explanations regarding their possession of the items, were taken into custody and charged with burglary. They were convicted, and they filed exceptions, contending that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that defendants' possession of the items stolen in the burglary afforded presumptive evidence of their guilt where unsatisfactory accounts were given as to their possession. 

Issue:

Did the trial court err in instructing the jury that possession of stolen property immediately after the theft, if an unsatisfactory account of it is given "affords presumptive evidence of guilt?"

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts overruled the defendants' exceptions to the trial court's decision. The Court concluded that the proof sufficiently supported the allegation of ownership of the dwelling-house and of the personal property stolen. The Court held that possession of the box of cigars, under the circumstances testified to, gave rise to the presumption that Carney was the person who had taken it from the house of Mrs. Finnegan. According to the Court, the inference, then, that he was connected with the burglary and with the larceny of the other articles, taken at or about the same time, was just as natural, obvious, and legitimate as if the box of cigars had been enumerated with the other property in the indictment. The Court ruled that the instructions that possession of stolen property immediately after the theft, if an unsatisfactory account of it is given "affords presumptive evidence of guilt,” was right. The Court concluded that any evidence which tended to show that the defendants were guilty of the theft, tended also to show that they were guilty of the burglary by means of which the theft was effected.

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