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The law generally does not afford a criminal remedy for the taking of property held in common by one co-owner from another. Any contention that property so held in common "belonged to another" is insufficiently grounded vis a vis co-owners because each has the legal right to take and possess the object of the alleged theft.
Pam Rabalais and Jason Rabalais met and lived together for a while without formality. Pam testified she received" [$ 18,500] in a lump-sum payment" from a job following a "leave of absence." The couple used the funds to buy a trailer and "some land" and "did a lot of improvement on the land." All the property, however, was purchased in Jason's name shortly before the couple married on June 15, 1996. Throughout the couples' brief marriage, Jason Rabalais physically abused his wife. He was arrested and jailed several times for beating Pam. Despite Jason's propensity for violence, Pam loved and continued to forgive him. Jason's repeated incarceration for fighting with his wife caused much friction between the couple's families and, in particular, between Pam and Steve Rabalais, Jason's father who admitted at trial he "did not like her." After the January incident, Pam feared "[Jason's] family was going to take everything…" While in jail Jason signed a power of attorney on February 21, 1997 giving his father full authority to act in his stead. When Jason was released from jail, the couple "got back together-" this angered both families and "created a lot of problems." According to Pam, Jason was remorseful for the problems he caused and desiring to "do right by her," he agreed to share ownership of the property he owned separately and acquired when they were together but was listed solely in his name. Jason allegedly executed an “Act of Donation” wherein he donated ½ interest and ownership of a list of properties to Pam. One of them was a Chevy S-10 truck, which Steve Rabalais testified at trial he purchased for his son before the couple met and he considered that all the property Jason owned before he met Pam remained his separate property.
In June, 1997, Jason beat Pam again, severely injuring her. He was charged with committing rape and aggravated battery. On September 14, 1997 Jason drove to court in the Chevy S-10 pickup to answer the charges against him. After the charges were amended, he pled guilty to committing second degree battery on Pam and was promptly sentenced to serve three years at hard labor with the Department of Corrections. Steve Rabalais' sister-in-law drove the truck to his home that day. A few weeks later, Steve Rabalais testified Pam "asked to use it" and he acceded to her request. But when he requested that she return the truck, Steve Rabalais on direct examination by the State related that Pam refused. After "several days" passed, Steve Rabalais telephoned Pam again and again she refused to return the truck. On November 24, 1997, Steve "went to the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Bureau in Bunkie and [he] brought a power of attorney which [he] had from Jason…. and he switched the title [for the Chevy S-10 pickup] from Jason's name to [his] name." The next day, Jason signed a "REVOCATION OF POWER OF ATTORNEY" which recites in pertinent part: "I, Jason Anthony Rabalais. . . effective this date, [revoking] Steven Rabalais of all Powers of Attorney filed February 21, 1997, booking page A435, entry # 97-01219, Avoyelles parish Clerk of Court, Marksville, La. . . ." When Pam drove the truck to the Avoyelle's Parish Detention Center in Bunkie to visit Jason a week later, Steve Rabalais (with a new certificate of title in hand) arrived at the Sheriffs office and requested assistance in retrieving the truck from Pam's possession. Two deputies approached Pam and directed her to give them the keys to the truck. When she complied, they proceeded to an area outside the Center where Steve Rabalais was waiting and handed him the keys to the truck. Steve drove the truck to his home and parked it in a shed. On December 5, 1997, Steve returned to the jail and obtained a second power of attorney from his son. Steve left the truck parked in the shed for two months until he decided it was safe to place it on a "little parking pad" in the "front corner of [his] yard." On February 24, 1998, he was awakened by a telephone call from a sheriff officer that the truck was gone from the yard. A deputy was able to find the truck and apprehended the driver, Clint Lachney. Upon his arrest, he confessed "on the spot" and named as his accomplices Pam Rabalais and Nicole Neumiller. He also told the officers where the truck had been abandoned. Pam and Nicole were arrested and the truck was returned to Steve Rabalais that morning. Pam Rabalais was charged with committing theft of property over five hundred dollars, a violation of La.R.S. 14:67. After trial, the jury convicted her and she was sentenced to serve three years with the Department of Corrections. The sentence was suspended and she was placed on three years supervised probation, fined $ 1000, ordered to pay restitution, and to comply with other special conditions.
Did the trial court err in convicting Pam of theft?
In this case, Pam Rabalais testified she acquired an ownership interest in the object of the theft (the Chevy S-10 pickup) by virtue of an Act of Donation executed by her husband, Jason Rabalais, who was financially indebted to her for sums she loaned him prior to their marriage. She introduced as proof the document reproduced above, dated March 1, 1997, which bears Jason Rabalais' signature. The State, thus, could not satisfy its burden that "the thing of value belonged to another" by merely showing Steve Rabalais possessed a certificate of title from the Department of Motor Vehicle at the time of the alleged taking. The Act of Donation, albeit invalid to translate title to immovable property, evidenced Jason's intent to convey to his wife an interest in the truck to be held in "community." Further, the State offered no evidence to rebut Pam's testimony that she loaned Jason $ 18,500 and in payment of the loan he gave her equal interest in all the property listed separately in his name, including the Chevy S-10 pickup. Without instructions on what constitutes a valid "donation by manual gift," the jury understandably was ill-prepared to properly weigh the evidence. The burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the property belonged to "another" and not in any portion to Pam rests with the State. This burden it did not carry as a matter of law. Moreover, the State was required to establish Pam intended to deprive the "other" permanently of the object taken. Proof that Pam took a vehicle registered in Steve Rabalais' name was not alone sufficient to overcome this burden. Pam, even if later proven wrong, reasonably believed she owned an interest in the truck. The father's admission that Jason told him he "tricked her again" was evidence that Jason lulled Pam into believing all the property she and he owned prior to and after the marriage belonged to them in community. By her own admission, she loved and trusted Jason too much. But her honest belief she owned an interest in the truck and reasonable ignorance of the law on donations inter vivos precludes a finding that she intended to take the property of another.