People v. Tufunga


Defendant charged with assault and robbery against his former wife.  Defendant pushed his ex to the floor and kicked her.  Ex’s mother arrived with money to give to the ex.  After continuously assaulting his ex, the defendant took the money and left.  Defendant testified he had helped his ex pay a bill that day.  He testified that when he asked for the money back, defendant took the money and stuffed it into her bra, which caused him to wrestler the money away from her.  At trial the defendant sought a claim of right defense.


Trial court refuses to admit claim of right instruction to the jury.  Convicted at trial.  On appeal, defendant argued that he was entitled to take the money back by force, per his claim of right defense.  Appellate court rejects appeal.


Whether a claim of right defense can be sought where defendant uses force or robs to recoup the property believed to be his own.


Claim of right defense – “A defendant’s good faith belief, even if mistakenly held, that he has a right or claim to property he takes from another negates felonious intent necessary for conviction of theft or robbery.”  This right extends to forcible takings in order to satisfy debt, per prior case law.


No.  There are strong public policy concerns that extend the claim of right defense to collection of debt, but also keep such a defense from being extended to recapture of property believed to be his/her own by force or robbery.  Where the debt owed is money itself, taking the money is itself robbery.  Money is not a specific item owed to the creditor.  Where the item is a more specific good or piece of property, the claim of right defense may be extended.


“Proof of the existence of a state of mind incompatible with an intent to steal precludes a finding of either theft or robbery.  General rule is that a bona fide belief, if though mistakenly held, that one has a right or claim to the property negates felonious intent.”

Most states do not extend the claim of right defense for debt collections by force or robbery, regardless of the item at issue.  Other states have overruled this doctrine on the basis of its tendency for “violent self-help” and related public policy concerns.

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