Was the container abandoned? Discarded? Edgar Rebollar thought it was garbage. Without bothering to ask anybody, he loaded it into his truck. He was later convicted of theft of property and sentenced to 12 months' conditional discharge, which is similar to probation. On appeal, he unsuccessfully argued that he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and that his sentence is excessive.
When the matter came to trial, the prosecution first called Terrence Doyle who testified that he is president of Doyle Signs Inc., in Addison, Ill., situated about 20 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. On January 9, 2016, as he walked up to the front door of the company's main building, he saw a red pickup truck that had backed up into the company’s yard. He watched as a man, later identified as Rebollar, loaded a large stainless-steel bin onto the truck. Until then, the bin had been on company property, abutting a yard where the company parked its trucks and stored old equipment. Doyle testified that he entered the company office and learned from his brother, the company's operations manager, that nobody was scheduled to pick up or drop off anything. After going back outside, he saw the man drive away with the bin in the truck.
Mark Schneider, a maintenance mechanic for Doyle Signs, testified that he got a call from the main office informing him that someone had just driven off with the company's mill tub. Schneider drove to nearby C&J Scrap Metal where he saw a man leaving in a red pickup truck. Schneider then returned to Doyle Signs where, after he found the truck's license plate on the ground, he called the police.
Addison Police Officer Salvo DiFatta testified that he responded to the call by driving to Doyle Signs and speaking with Schneider who pointed out the place from which the bin had been taken: outside a fenced area and next to a dumpster. DiFatta ran a license plate check that turned up Rebollar. Schneider told DiFatta that he had recovered the bin from C&J, which had purchased the bin from Rebollar, and that Doyle had told him the bin had been taken by a man in a red pickup truck. DiFatta then spoke with Doyle who told him the same thing, adding that the incident had occurred shortly before 9:00 a.m.
After being contacted by DiFatta, Rebollar voluntarily came to the police station where another officer, with DiFatta present, spoke to him. He admitted having removed the bin from Doyle Signs, believing at the time that it was garbage but not asking anyone there if he could take the bin. He said that he sold the bin to C&J. At the end of DiFatta’s testimony, the prosecution rested its case.
Rebollar took the stand in his defense and testified that on January 9 he was driving around looking for metal that he could sell to C&J, which he had been doing regularly for about four months. At Doyle Signs, he saw "this other container there next to the garbage bin.” Assuming the container was garbage, he loaded it onto his truck. While he was there, nobody spoke to him. The bin was not in a fenced area. After he put the bin into his truck, he took it C&J. Two hours later, he received a call from C&J telling him that the owners of the bin had picked it up. He drove back to the scrap yard to return the money. From there, he went home.
On cross-examination, he admitted driving onto the Doyle Signs property. He admitted not speaking to anyone about entering the company's property or about taking the bin. The day after he spoke to DiFatta, he went to Doyle Signs and apologized. The defense called no other witnesses.
In rebuttal, Doyle took the stand again and testified that the company property consists of a 22,000-sq.-ft. building, a 1,500-sq.-ft. garage, and an area in between, which is used to park trucks and store equipment and materials. The bin was taken from this in-between area. The bin was located roughly 50 feet from the street. A large driveway between the street and the location of the bin made it possible for a person to drive right in from the street to where the dumpster sat.
During closing argument, defense counsel contended that the evidence created a reasonable inference that Rebollar had believed that the bin was "garbage," so that he had taken it without knowing that it was still Doyle Signs' property.
The transcript reveals a decisive exchange between the trial judge and the defense:
THE COURT: Doyle saw somebody drive on his property 30 to 40 feet, load a bin next to a garbage thing and take it away and sell it for scrap.
MR. BIRD [Defendant's attorney]: Right, it was next to a garbage dump.
THE COURT: 30 to 40 feet onto the property.
MR. BIRD: Judge, in an unfenced area.
THE COURT: 50 feet onto somebody else's property, whether it's fenced or not fenced, tell me how *** does that consist of garbage?
MR. BIRD: Judge, it's next to a dumpster.
THE COURT: Okay. So what? What has that got to do with anything *** if it's not out to be taken away by garbage trucks?
MR. BIRD: Well, Judge-
THE COURT: Even if it's garbage, it's not his garbage. Tell me how it's his property if it's on somebody else's property, 40 feet, 50 feet from the street, whether it's next to a garbage bin or not? And tell me how he can go in there and claim that it's his."
The judge went on to note again that, although the bin had been next to the dumpster, it had also been 40 or 50 feet from the street. The bin had not been set out by the curb on garbage day.
The back-and-forth concluded:
THE COURT: I don't know if it's garbage or not. He certainly doesn't know if it's garbage or not.
MR. BIRD: Judge, if you don't know if it's garbage or not, how have they proven, beyondreasonable doubt, that it isn't?
THE COURT: It isn't their job to prove. It's your job to tell me it's garbage if that's what you're telling me. What I have heard clearly is that [Doyle] had a bin out by his garbage dump and it was taken by [defendant] and sold for scrap. That tells me it's [Doyle's]property, and [defendant] took it and sold it for scrap.
The judge found Rebollar guilty, and the proceedings moved on to sentencing. The state recommended one year of conditional discharge. Defendant requested a disposition of supervision, noting his minimal prior record, his candor with the police, and his apology to Doyle Signs.
Court supervision is a sentencing option available in most traffic, municipal ordinance, and misdemeanor cases in the state of Illinois and other jurisdictions. If a judge believes that something less than a fine or jail time is appropriate, he or she puts the guilty plea or finding on hold without entering it as a conviction at that time. The defendant is subjected to a period of court oversight, usually lasting three to 24 months. A court may impose conditions which a defendant must obey during the period of supervision. Following successful completion of the period of court supervision, the case is dismissed, and no conviction is ever entered on the record. Conditional discharge is closer to probation, requiring a period of good behavior combined with conditions, but the offender is not required to report to a probation officer. The finding of guilt remains.
The judge noted that defendant's guilt was "obvious" because his defense—that he thought the bin had been garbage—was unsound. "Whether this, in fact, was going to end up in the garbage bin is certainly debatable, but it wasn't garbage at that point in time, until it's placed out for pick up by a garbage company," he said. The judge sentenced defendant to a year of conditional discharge and not supervision mainly because defendant never admitted responsibility for the commission of the illegal act.
On appeal, defendant contended first that he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of theft, which, by law, required the state to prove that he knowingly obtained or exerted unauthorized control over property of the owner. He argued that, on the contrary, the evidence showed a reasonable doubt that, when he removed the bin, he knew that it was Doyle Signs' property. As he saw it, his testimony demonstrated a belief that Doyle Signs had abandoned the bin by virtue of its location outside the fenced area and next to a dumpster. He stressed the openness of his conduct—he took the bin in daylight and drove away in a normal fashion – and cited the lack of objection by anyone at Doyle Signs and his cooperation and candor after he learned that the company had recovered the bin.
In affirming Rebollar’s conviction and sentencing, the three-judge appellate panel concluded that the evidence was sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “The trial judge credited Doyle's description of the scene of the incident over defendant's description,” the opinion noted. “The judge could infer that, when defendant drove onto Doyle Signs' property, backed up his truck, and saw a serviceable-looking bin sitting 30 to 50 feet inside the property
line near trucks and other equipment, he knew that Doyle Signs had not abandoned or discarded the bin.”
As a rule, appeals courts give great deference to trial courts’ sentencing decisions. “Defendant's sentence was well within [statutory] guidelines; he did not receive imprisonment and was given only half the maximum term of conditional discharge,” the opinion said. “The judge was not altogether convinced that defendant had shown remorse for the offense, which, although a misdemeanor, was not insubstantial.”
Barry Shanoff is a Bethesda, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.