A fence (as a noun) refers to a person who receives or deals in stolen goods. Fence (as a verb) means to sell stolen goods to a fence. A fence will pay a below market price for the stolen goods and then attempt to resell them and make a large profit. Fencing is a crime in California and is prosecuted under California's Receiving Stolen Property law and can also be prosecuted under federal law when the stolen goods cross state lines. California Penal Code Section 496 (Receiving Stolen Property) defines the crime of Receiving Stolen Property as:
Buying, receiving, selling, aiding in selling, concealing, withholding stolen or extorted property, and
Knowing it to be stolen.
Note: If a person who had possession of the stolen property was the person who stole the goods, then the appropriate charge would be Theft.
To receive property means to take possession and control of it. Possession includes "constructive possession," but mere presence near or access to the property is not enough.
A person does not actually have to hold or touch something to possess it. It is enough if the person has control over it or the right to control it, either personally or through another person.
Property is stolen if it was obtained by any theft, burglary, robbery or extortion. Theft includes obtaining property by larceny, embezzlement, false pretenses or trick. Property is obtained by extortion if the property was obtained by another person with that person's consent, and that person's consent was obtained through the use of force or fear.
Knowing the property is stolen depends on the subjective and actual knowledge of the receiver of goods. While actual and subjective knowledge is often lacking, the courts turn to circumstantial evidence to establish that such a state of mind existed. Proof of the knowledge may be inferred from the circumstances surrounding the defendant's receipt of the stolen property. Among the circumstances which have been held to connect the defendant with the crime are:
Paying an absurdly low price for the goods;
Making false statements as to how the property came into the possession of the defendant;
Paying cash and receiving no written receipt for the goods;
Providing a false name or a failing to establish the identity or existence of the person from whom the defendant claimed to have received the goods;
Selling the property under a false name and at a ridiculously low price;
Selling the property with serial numbers or marks of identification removed.
Receiving Stolen Property can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony in California. Generally, if the value of the property is not over $400, a misdemeanor will be charged. The maximum punishment for a misdemeanor is one year in county jail. If the property value is over $400 or if the defendant has prior theft charges, most likely a felony will be charged. Someone charged with a felony is potentially facing a state prison sentence.
The 1st Fencing Sting San Diego Police Department
The 1st “Sting” involving the purchase of stolen property started in the fall of 1974 and ended in February 1975.
The purpose of the sting was to buy stolen property from burglars and fences using an undercover police officer.
A little history of the Fencing Detail is needed to understand this new concept.
During the early 70’s the burglary rate was increasing dramatically. Burglary is a crime that is difficult to solve since little physical evidence is left at the scene and usually no eyewitnesses are available. This is also a crime that directly impacts residents and businesses.
Due to a concern that little stolen property was recovered during a burglary investigation, even though many burglars were apprehended, several detectives from the Burglary Division identified several possible fences or career burglary suspects for under cover surveillance operations. Some of the personnel from that unit included Sergeant Bill Rice, Detectives; Ralph Jaffe, Leigh Emmerson, Donny McCain, Bob Weaver, Don Hamlin, & Dan Berglund.
The results of these investigations resulted in a major fence working in a small market at 2400 Imperial Avenue arrested and thousands of dollars of stolen property recovered.
In addition to surveillances, these detectives started developing informants knowledgeable about burglars and fences. Many surveillances were conducted following suspected burglars which resulted in catching the suspects actually performing the burglary or leading the detectives to a fence’s location. This became so successful the Fencing Detail was formed.
During the 1st years this unit recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stolen property. Often this property hadn’t even been reported as stolen by the victims. This was such a successful unit it was doubled in size and a grant written to assist with the funding.
One of the ideas was to make an undercover officer in a location posing a “Fence” and purchase stolen property. In 1974 I had just been transferred to detectives and assigned to the Juvenile Division.
After approximately a year I learned that the Fencing Detail was going to be expanded.
I talked to Sergeant Bill Rice about a transfer since I had worked for him in patrol. As usual with these types of requests he was non committal.
When transfers were announced I was NOT on the list. Although disappointed, Sergeant Rice contacted me and said there might be a “temporary” assignment for a few months only.
A few months later, Sergeant Rice contacted me and said that they were planning a “secret” undercover operation to purchase stolen property. He thought I might work out as the buyer but first I had to be interviewed by senior Detective Leigh Emmerson.
I didn’t personally know Leigh, but I knew of him as a very smart detective. It was also hard to miss Leigh since he stood about 6’7”.
Leigh invited me for coffee at the coffee shop at the Old Police Headquarters (801 W. Market) and we talked for a couple of hours. I didn’t realize at the time that Leigh was actually interviewing me to determine if I was skilled enough to handle this undercover assignment.
Apparently I did, because a few weeks later, Sergeant Rice contacted me, told me not to report to juvenile and not to come down to the police department anymore. I basically disappeared from my assignment at juvenile.
My 1st instructions were to start letting my hair grow and start a mustache. Because this type of operation had never been done before, very few people knew it was being planned. Many of the newly assigned detectives to the fencing detail didn’t know about the operations until it was almost over!
I was assigned an old white Ford station wagon to use in my undercover role. (It used to belong to the fire department. It was all red until painted)
At first my instructions were to read information regarding used property and since the actual location to be used for the “storefront” hadn’t been located yet, after a couple of weeks I was instructed to hang out near the Methadone clinic at 14th and Market and also hand out at Martell’s bar which was notorious for felons, Mexican Mafia members, junkies, and assorted other low-lifes.
This was quite an assignment since I had about 3 weeks growth of hair and mustache and had also worked downtown for several years prior to this assignment. I think I became more paranoid that some of the crooks!
Eventually a location was found at Morena Blvd and Weeks Avenue. At the time it was an older house that had been converted into a construction office.
Now at this location is the House of Rattan. When you are told that you will be buying stolen property the main question that arises, is how much do you pay? Actually no one really had a clue! Everyone had an idea, but as we discovered, every purchase from a crook, even when several buys were made from the same one, were different. During this operation I made 116 buys.
It was difficult at first to get the crooks to want to sell me stolen property. I used the name Bill Vincent and told most of the crooks I was working for a man from Monterey. Many expressed an interest in selling me property but many had suspicious that I might be a cop or an informant.
One occasion I gave a ride to a theft and his girlfriend to her parent’s house. While there, they stolen her parent’s small stereo system and sold it to me. I think I paid $50 for it. I had driven them from Market Street to the south bay.
At this time I was just “hanging out” trying to establish myself. I carried NO badge, NO gun (except inside the storefront) and NO police ID. I used a California temporary driver’s license as identification under the name of William Larry Vincent. Also I had no cover units when I was on the streets. (A practice that is now frowned upon......for obvious reasons today)
The reason a fixed location was establish was so that we could set up video recording equipment, have outside surveillance established, and have to crooks come to us rather than unknown locations in the city. You have to remember that during this time in law enforcement a number of things hadn’t been invented yet. There were no VCR’s or DVD’s, no cell phones, no ATM’s, pagers were not routinely available for everyone, and no computer systems! (ARJIS) had not yet been formed.
The recording equipment available to us at the time was a Sony black & white reel-to-reel system. We received assistance from Bob Lampert who worked for Channel 10 as a news cameraman. (This was also in the days before the video unit) Bob’s expertise was invaluable in choosing the right equipment, how to disguise the camera (which was very large) and how to troubleshoot any video problems during the operation.
Once the location was set up it was pretty simple. The video recorder was set up in a locked rear room. I sat at a desk in the front room and would turn on the unit, by pulling open the desk drawer. A microphone was located in the overhead light fixture. The camera was located in a file cabinet, located behind a wall. A slot had been cut out of the wall with the file cabinet on one side and a silk screen frame picture hung of the other. The camera lens was aimed through this slot in the wall and captured most of the room. I always freaked out about this picture since it was only hanging there by ONE nail! I just knew one of these crooks was going to knock it off the wall exposing the camera but it remained secure for 3 ½ months of the actual buy time. The photo contained images of the zodiac.
There was a parking lot on the north side of the property where the crooks would drive up, unload their property and bring it into the front office.
Outside in the parking lot was Leigh Emmerson who maintained surveillance from a small truck and camper shell. It was normal for Leigh to arrive around 0800-0830 hours and stay until 1500-1600 hours everyday.
I was inside the location.
Leigh took photos of the crooks arriving, obtained their descriptions and vehicle license numbers. He was also my back up. If something went wrong he had to make the decision to come to my rescue! Fortunately everything worked out for the entire time.
I always admired Leigh for spending all that time alone in the truck. He was totally self-contained with a porta-potty, cooler, and camera equipment. Not once did I ever him complain about his assignment.
Once the word got out, and I made several buys from crooks the word spread quickly that “Bill Vincent” paid good money for property. You name it and I bought it; TV’s, stereo systems, leather coats, jewelry, weapons, etc.
I spent approximately $20,000 and we recovered over $200,000 work of property.
When it was all over we indicted 55 persons. Everyone who was indicted was convicted!
This was a pretty exciting time for a new young detective. I was 29 years old when this started and had been on the department 6 years. Of course I wanted this to be successful not only because I was involved but because this was the 1st time anything like this had been attempted. As it turned out it was extremely successful and led the way to many other stolen property “stings”.
The main players involved with the sting were Sergeant Rice, Leigh Emmerson, Detective Ron Newman, and Detective Ralph Jaffe and myself.
Although I was the buyer, this was a team effort. I always thought Ron Newman had the hardest assignment, since he would research all of the property that I had purchased each day against reported cases. All this was done before any computers were available to routinely research. He made contacts with major corporations that might have warranty information on victims since many did not know serial numbers of their property. He also had to liaison with every agency in the county since the property was being stolen in other jurisdictions not just the City of San Diego.
He did an outstanding job, which resulted in over 85% of all the stolen property being returned to the victims!
Ralph Jaffe was invaluable in many ways, but was an informant expert. Due to many of his informants and suggestions, the sting was able to get moving.
Sergeant Bill Rice was an excellent supervisor. He and his crew put in an unbelievable amount of overtime into this operation. This was when we only got straight time for overtime. The concept for the sting was his idea. He had to manage all the reports that I, Leigh, and Ron Newman compiled, plus keeping track of expenses and buy money.
Of course all these cases had to be presented to the Grand Jury. We had a DA assigned to assist during the entire operation that was invaluable in making sure we had has little of a delay as possible after the sting closed before indictments were issued. His name was Ed Checkert.
This part of San Diego Police History was very beneficial for the citizens of San Diego. Many repeat offenders were removed from the streets and sent to prison. The vast amount of stolen property was returned to its rightful owners. The conviction rate was 100% since the video evidence recorded all the transactions made by the crooks when they bragged how they committed the thefts.
This “temporary” assignment lasted almost 4 years for me! I stayed in the unit posing undercover on many other buys and involved in hundreds of surveillances of many suspects besides burglars and fences. This exciting part of my career ended when I was promoted to Sergeant in October 1978.
Bill Campbell (retired Detective Sergeant) November 15, 1968- January 14, 2003 SDPD career