NEW YORK (MainStreet) A kid in Georgia has stolen a lot of money and won't give it back.
On March 7 the First Citizens Bank in Hull, Georgia made a mistake, depositing $31,000 from a customer named Steven Fields into the account of another customer with the same name. The second Fields is a local 18 year old who, after finding the bank's error, immediately did what any budding sociopath would with a lot of money that wasn't his.
He spent it.
Ten days later the original Steven Fields discovered First Citizens' mistake, by which time the teenager had spent $5,000 on his debit card and withdrew another $20,000 in cash. When the bank asked him to return the money the younger Fields claimed that they were wrong. No mistake had been made. The money, he said, was a direct deposit from his grandmother's estate.
Both claims were lies. In a seemingly gutsy move the teenager even promised to return with proof of his inheritance, which he never did (because he didn't get one). At time of publication Fields has still not returned a dime of the $31,000 he stole, the only appropriate word for walking away with a duffle bag stuffed full of someone else's cash. For his efforts, Gawker has dubbed him a candidate for Hero of the Year.
Which part of this story, exactly, is heroic? The stealing? The lying? Fields's adolescent shopping spree? Perhaps he would earn my sympathy if Fields had run off to the nearest orphanage with his windfall, but a teenager who goes off blowing someone else's money on himself? No.
Unfortunately for Fields, the law takes this position as well. Heroic or not, keeping this money is also illegal.
Knowingly taking or keeping property that doesn't belong to you is a crime. The complicated story surrounding how Fields got the $31,000 ultimately doesn't matter, according to Chicago criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Purav Bhatt. The only question the law asks is whether the money belonged to Fields and whether the teenager knew that.
"If we're talking about $100,000, let's just say for example, in most states you're looking at a felony," Bhatt said. "At least for theft. What the other charges may be I'm not exactly sure, that would be up to the prosecutors. But at the very least that would be a theft charge."
Under Georgia law taking $31,000 is more than enough to elevate this to a felony. It also doesn't matter that the money was in Fields's account, as some people have argued in his defense.
Putting money into someone's bank account doesn't make it that person's any more than a mistaken delivery means you get to loot your neighbor's Amazon account. When banks make an accidental deposit the recipient has to return this money, because mistake or not, the money never belonged to the person in the first place.
What turns this from a simple bit of paperwork into a criminal matter is what you do after the bank explains its error.
"If you don't have a good faith belief that $100,000 is in your account," Bhatt explained, "then it's not reasonable to believe that all of a sudden you received a windfall from the bank."
This issue of good faith is what's known in the law as mens rea, or "the guilty mind." Broadly speaking the state can't prosecute a mistake; you have to intend to commit the crime. If the bank accidentally shuffles an extra $50 into your checking account it's reasonable to spend it and not realize the error. On the other hand when an 18 year old gets $31,000 dropped in his lap, he knows that the money isn't his.
When he pulls the money out and then tries to lie about it, that just makes matters worse.
Everything about Fields's story points to someone who's trying (badly) to loot the bank. This isn't some kid who blew a windfall on a night out or a new Battlefield game. Coming up a few hundred dollars short is an embrace-your-error moment for the banker. Walking out with a duffle bag full of cash is something else altogether. It shows that Fields knows he's taking money that belongs to someone else. In fact, he's trying to hide it.
The real question is whether or not the authorities prosecute.
According to Bhatt, the common approach is for banks to threaten criminal charges to try and scare someone like Fields into giving back the money. Banks will prosecute if they have to, but under ordinary circumstances they try to avoid it. Cases like this are rare and tough. Walking a judge or jury through the banking process that leads to mistaken transactions is a mess.
"The computer error, the complexity of how an error like that can happen, educating the court on the complexity of those transactions and how that transaction ended up depositing that money into that individual's account, coupled with the whole problem of the intent [makes] that sort of prosecution difficult," Bhatt said.
The bank can always get its money back through a civil action, but to press criminal charges, the bank has to prove that the recipient knew it wasn't his money. That's not easy when a defendant can claim his worst sin was inattention to detail and trusting his bank statement.
In this case, however, prosecutors probably have less to deal with. It's one thing to deal with a defendant who can claim that his worst sin was inattention to detail and trusting his bank statements. Dealing with a kid, however, who spent the money as fast as he could, lied about where it came from and took the bulk out in cash?
I'd take that case.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.