Q: I work in food and agriculture. We’ve got a bunch of milk crates that say, “$1,500 fine, imprisonment, or both for unauthorized possession or use — Penal Code sec. 496, 565, 566.” Can they really put me in jail for taking one of these home and using it to store DVDs? We have a lot of extras.” — Annie F., Davis.
A: Believe it or not, yes. They can put you in jail for six months and make you pay a fine if you use milk crates without “authorization,” according to California Penal Code sections 565 and 566.
Specifically, you need the owner’s permission to use any “containers (including milk cases), cabinets, or other dairy equipment” stamped with a brand.
It seems weird, but that’s what happens when industry lobbyists run our government. Those happy California cows must have been swiping a lot of milk crates.
California Penal Code 496, which bans receiving stolen property, applies to more than just milk crates, though. It applies to all stolen property; but receiving stolen property is different than theft. Theft is when you personally go out and take something that belongs to someone else. Receiving stolen property happens after the fact, when you knowingly take possession of property that you knew or should have known was stolen.
That “knowingly” element is important. If you don’t know — or had no reason to know — that the property was stolen, you have a defense to receiving stolen property. For example, if you buy a Nintendo Wii on eBay for $200, you would normally have no reason to think it’s stolen; $200 is a fair price, eBay is (usually) legitimate and unless there’s something shady about the listing you’ve got no reason to think the seller is a thief.
But imagine you encounter a meth fiend on the side of the road. He hails your car. You pull over. Twitching furtively, he offers to sell you his “hot, hot Xbox 360” for 40 bucks “or however much cash you’ve got on you.” You should realize it’s stolen. If you take the offer, you’re guilty of receiving stolen property.
Milk crates are special property, thanks to the cow industry.
Sections 565 and 566 of the Penal Code ban the use of milk crates by “unauthorized persons” when the crates are marked with a dairy company’s legally registered brand. You’re considered unauthorized unless you get the written permission of the company to use the milk crate.
And when you find what seems like an abandoned milk crate, you must return it to the owner. Can’t find the owner? Then you must write a letter to California’s Director of Food and Agriculture and tell him that you have the milk crate.
Look it up: California Food and Agricultural Code 34561 gives you an affirmative duty to report the discovery of all abandoned milk crates to the government. Fail to do so, and you could be fined.
And we wonder why Texans think we have too many laws.
Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted to @governorwatts.