Who knew that filching a bank’s money could be judged on style points?
Missouri courts lately have pondered how a defendant’s behavior during a bank heist should determine how he is charged. But guidance abounds for greedy and weak-minded thieves as well.
To wit: Be polite, keep your hands visible and lay off the gangster talk.
At issue is the difference between the crimes of stealing and second-degree robbery. Robbery requires the use of, or the threat to use, force. The lesser crime of stealing is defined as appropriating property without the owner’s consent. And stealing generally carries lower penalties.
In September, the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals reviewed Gary Leland Coleman’s robbery conviction for taking money from a Callaway County bank in 2012. On appeal, Coleman argued that he really should have been convicted of stealing.
Coleman entered the bank and presented the teller with a very prim note that read, “I need you to do me a favor. Put the money in this bag.” When a manager approached, Coleman said, “Ma’am, stop where you are and don’t move any further.”
Video also showed that Coleman kept his hands visible and made no gesture to suggest that he “was poised to attack,” judges noted.
Gracious. Where I come from you must ask for a favor and “Ma’am” just brims with respect.
Two appeals judges agreed with Coleman and ordered him re-sentenced for stealing.
Claude Dale Brooks didn’t fare as well in November with a similar argument before the Missouri Supreme Court.
In August 2011 Brooks entered a St. Charles County bank with a terse note, reading “50 & 100’s, No Bait Bills, Bottom Drawer.” And when the teller moved to fetch the cash, Brooks slapped the counter hard and said, “Get back here.”
That unsettling slap helped seal Brooks’ fate. He was a robber, not a stealer, the court found.
“Brooks’s slamming of his hand forcefully on the counter certainly could be considered a threat of immediate physical force,” the Supreme Court found.
And both courts noted that if bank thieves announce “This is a holdup!” or “This is a stickup!” they’ve telegraphed their intention to use force.
One caveat: The ever-so-polite Mr. Coleman likely will have his case reviewed by the Missouri Supreme Court, which may well determine that he again is a robber.
But for now, manners still count for something.