Can You Steal Something That Belongs to You

Can You Steal something that belongs to you

Can You Steal Something That Belongs to You

by Takim Etta


Stealing is a crime worldwide, punishable by law. It occurs when a person takes something that does not belong to them. However, a legal debate arises regarding the possibility of someone stealing what they own. This article aims to answer the question of whether a person can steal something that is rightfully theirs.

The Criminal Code prescribes a 3-year imprisonment term for stealing in Section 390, making it a highly serious offense. Nigerian courts have consistently upheld this legislation. In the case of Oluwaseun Adeniyi v State, a person charged with stealing a car was imprisoned for 4 years. Similarly, in Bakare v. State, an individual charged with stealing a truck material received a 3-year sentence. These instances highlight the gravity of the offense of stealing.

It is a settled principle of law that a person cannot steal what they own. However, there are exceptions to this rule, which will be discussed in this article. Before delving into these exceptions, it is imperative that readers understand the true nature of stealing for a better comprehension of the answers we will provide.

What Is Stealing?

Stealing is the act of permanently converting something that can be stolen by a person who is not the owner, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that item[3]. Section 390 of the Criminal Code states that a person can be held liable for stealing if they cause something to move which capable of being stolen with the intent to deprive the owner of it permanently. In the case of Cobbina Vrs Republic (J3 7 of 2019) [2020] GHASC 4 . Stealing is defined as the intentional act of depriving ownership of something not in one’s possession with no intention to return it.

Now that we’ve defined what stealing is, it’s important to note that for a crime to be committed, two elements must be present simultaneously: the physical and mental elements. The physical element requires a person to have the intention to steal; therefore, a sleepwalker unintentionally taking a phone, mistaking it as their own, cannot be held responsible for stealing it. Similarly, a person unconsciously taking a pen from a bank after usage cannot be held liable for stealing unless the act was intentional.

The second element, the mental element, involves the intention to permanently deprive the owner of the item in question. For instance, a person who takes another person’s car without permission and returns it after driving it for the day cannot be charged with stealing the car but could face charges for stealing the car’s fuel. Similarly, taking another person’s phone intentionally without consent and returning it later in the day constitutes conversion of the phone, not stealing.

It’s crucial to understand that both the physical and mental elements—knowledge and deprivation—must be present simultaneously for an act to be considered a crime. If one is absent, it does not constitute a crime. This stance is based on the fundamental principle of criminal law, which states that there can be no responsibility without wrongdoing, as established in the Woolmington v. DPP case.

According to the definition and Section provided above, it is clear that in addition to the elements of knowledge and deprivation, the ingredients constituting the offense of stealing must also be present.

1. The item in question must be capable of being stolen.
Only items with ownership can be stolen; one cannot be charged with stealing a river, but stealing fish from a pond is an offense. Similarly, stealing land is not a crime; the item in question must be movable from one place to another. Therefore, only movable properties can be stolen under Nigerian Law.

2. The accused must have caused the item to move.
The mere movement of an item completes the first element and the second ingredient required to establish the offense of stealing—the physical element. The question now becomes the mental element required to complete the offense. I hope you’re not bored yet; we’re almost to your answer.

3. There must be an intention by the person taking the item to permanently deprive the owner.
If a person takes an item and later returns it, they would not be held liable for stealing if the circumstances of the case indicate that the person never intended to deprive the owner of the item in question.


“Can you steal something that belongs to you?

The answer is generally no; you can’t steal what already belongs to you. However, there are exceptions and circumstances where a person can be held liable for stealing.

A person can be held accountable for stealing their own property if repair or improvement work has been done, and they intend not to pay the worker and steal it. For example, if a person gives their clothes to a tailor for mending and, with the intention not to pay, takes the clothes without the tailor’s knowledge, they would be held liable for stealing due to the lien on the goods in question.  In the case of R v Turner (No 2) [1971] 1 WLR 901, the accused took his vehicle from the repair shop without intending to pay for the repairs. The Court of Appeal ruled that the car could be considered as ‘property owned by someone else’ in relation to the owner because it was under the possession and control of the repairer.

Custody by the court, police, or Road Safety: If the court or police have seized a person’s goods pending the determination of a specific case, whether connected or unconnected to the property in question, unlawfully taking the item in question would amount to stealing.

If a person forfeits goods due to a statutory breach, either to customs or the police, they cannot claim the property anymore. Taking it without permission would be considered stealing. For instance, if a person fails to clear their goods in accordance with section 592 of the Customs and Allied Matters Act, and the goods are seized, the alleged owner cannot claim the vehicle that has been auctioned by customs. Taking it at that point would be stealing.

In conclusion, the concept of stealing, particularly when it involves one’s own property, is nuanced and governed by specific circumstances and legal considerations. While, in general, one cannot steal what belongs to them, exceptions arise in situations where repairs or improvements have been made, or when legal actions such as forfeiture to the court or police occur. Understanding these exceptions is crucial to avoiding legal liabilities. It is essential to respect legal boundaries and uphold ethical standards in all situations, ensuring that one’s actions align with the law and moral principles.( Can You Steal Something That Belongs to You)



  1. punishment for selling under the penal Code is provided under section 287 of the Code and it provides for 5 Years Imprisonment
  2. vanguard, “Man sentenced to four years imprisonment for stealing car” (October 21, 2019)
  3. Yerima, T.F. and Oluduro, O., 2012. Criminal Law Protection of Property: A Comparative Critique of the Offences of Stealing and Theft in Nigeria. J. Pol. & L.5, p.167.
  4. Ghuman, Arshdeep. “Elements of Crime.” Int’l JL Mgmt. & Human. 1 (2018): 70.
  5. Nord, M., 1959. The Mental Element in Crime. U. Det. LJ37, p.671.
  6. Teacher, B.E., 2009. Sleepwalking used as a defense in criminal cases and the evolution of the Ambien defense. Duq. Crim. LJ1, p.127.
  7. Jovasevic, D., 2005. Notion, Elements and Characteristics of International Criminal Offence. Strani Pravni Zivot, p.277.
  8. Woolmington v DPP [1935] AC 462


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