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Can You Be Prosecuted For Failing To Return Rental Property In Michigan?

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If you are renting furniture, electronics or other items from a rental center and you retain the property without paying the rental fee (or hold the property beyond the agreed-upon rental period), then the rental company will start mailing threatening letters demanding you to either pay the bill or return the merchandise. If the renter fails to comply, the rental company will likely make a complaint to law enforcement about the breach of contract. To the surprise of many Michigan residents, the prosecuting attorney can authorize criminal charges against a renter who defaults on the rental agreement and willfully fails to return the property to the rental company. These charges can lead to a conviction punishable by fines, probation and even incarceration.

An individual is guilty of refusal or willful neglect to return property, contrary to MCL 750.362a, if the prosecutor can prove all of the following beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • First, the property must be delivered on a rental or lease basis under a written agreement providing for its return to a particular place at a particular time;
  • Second, the individual must have refused or willfully neglected to return the property after the expiration of the time stated in a notice in writing proved to have been duly mailed by registered or certified mail addressed to his last known address; and
  • Third, at the time of the refusal or willful neglect the individual must have intended to defraud the lessor.

This statute applies to vehicles (e.g. rental cars and trucks), trailers and any other tangible personal property (e.g. computers, televisions, living room furniture and other household goods). This does NOT apply to retaining or holding any real property (e.g. staying in an apartment after the lease expired without paying rent).

The penalties for refusal or willful neglect to return property are as follows:

  • A misdemeanor conviction punishable with a fine up to $500.00 (or 3x the value of the vehicle, trailer or other tangible property, whichever is greater) and/or up to 93 days in jail, or both, contrary to MCL 750.362a(5), IF the value of the rented property was less than $200.00.
  • A misdemeanor conviction punishable with a fine up to $2,000.00 (or 3x the value of the vehicle, trailer or other tangible property, whichever is greater) and/or up to 1 year in jail, or both, contrary to MCL 750.362a(4), IF EITHER:
  1. The value of the rented property is $200.00 or more but less than $1,000.00; OR
  2. The individual commits the crime of refusal or willful neglect to return property under $200.00 AND the individual has a prior conviction for committing or attempting to commit refusal or willful neglect to return property.
  • A felony conviction punishable with a fine up to $10,000.00 (or 3x the value of the vehicle, trailer or other tangible property, whichever is greater) and/or up to 5 years in prison, or both, contrary to MCL 750.362a(3), IF EITHER:
  1. The value of the rented property is $1,000.00 or more but less than $20,000.00; OR
  2. The individual commits the crime of refusal or willful neglect to return property between $200.00 and less than $1,000.00 AND has one or more prior convictions for committing or attempting to commit refusal or willful neglect to return property greater than $1,000.00.
  • A felony conviction punishable with a fine up to $15,000.00 (or 3x the value of the vehicle, trailer or other tangible property, whichever is greater) and/or up to 10 years in prison, or both, contrary to MCL 750.362a(2), IF EITHER:
  1. The value of the rented property is $20,000.00 or more; OR
  2. The individual commits the crime of refusal or willful neglect to return property between $1,000.00 and less than $20,000.00 AND has two or more prior convictions for committing or attempting to commit refusal or willful neglect to return property greater than $1,000.00.

“The values of property not returned in separate incidents pursuant to a scheme or course of conduct within any 12-month period may be aggregated to determine the total value of property not returned.” MCL 750.362a(6).

The Michigan Legislature intended to create a statute distinct from larceny by conversion “to deal with those situations where rented property is not returned but an intent to permanently deprive is not ascertainable from the facts of the case.” People v McIntosh, 103 Mich App 11, 18; 302 NW2d 321 (1981). The Legislature does not require the element to intend to steal, but “merely made the failure to return leased property within the agreed rental period a fraud on the lessor, i.e., the use of rental property for an additional period without having to pay a rental fee but short of an intent to defraud or cheat the owner permanently of that property.” Id at 18. The absence of those elements results in lesser penalties then those assessed under the larceny by conversion statute, yet are still criminal convictions.

A conviction for refusal or willful neglect to return property may appear as a crime of dishonesty on your record that affects residential, social or employment opportunities in the future. A skilled criminal defense lawyer in your corner may help negotiate a resolution to these charges to minimize penalties or obtain an acquittal outright. The following defenses might be available to fight a charge of refusal or willful neglect to return property:

  • NO WRITTEN RENTAL AGREEMENT: The lessor and lessee must both have signed a written agreement (not oral) that specifies the particular time and place that the rental property must be returned. If the lessor cannot produce a written agreement, then the prosecution cannot be sustained.
  • NO NOTICE SENT DEMANDING RETURN OF PROPERTY: The prosecutor cannot sustain a conviction under the theory of willful neglect unless evidence is produced that a notice was sent to the lessee by certified mail demanding the return of the property at a certain place and time.
  • NO INTENT TO DEFRAUD: If the individual can show an excusable basis why the property was not returned, then it can lead to a dismissal of charges. For example, the rented property may have been stolen by someone else or destroyed in an accidental catastrophe like a fire or flood. Even if criminal liability is avoided, the individual could be liable in civil court for damages to the lessor for common law negligence.

If you or a loved one is accused of any crime, do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC to start your best defense today.

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