conversion | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In the criminal law context, conversion refers to the act of wrongfully taking and using someone else’s property as if it were your own.

Conversion, in the context of criminal law, is a legal term that refers to the act of wrongfully taking and using another person’s property as if it were your own. It is considered an unlawful act and is closely related to the offenses of theft and embezzlement. Conversion is a form of what is commonly called “property crime.” This term encompasses any criminal activity involving the taking of another person’s property without their consent and with the intention of depriving the rightful owner of it.

Connection to Theft and Other Property Crimes

It’s important to distinguish conversion from other property crimes. Unlike burglary or robbery, which involve an element of force or threat of force, conversion can happen in situations where the initial possession of the property was legal. For example, if someone lends their car to a friend, and the friend decides to sell the car without the owner’s permission, that action could be considered a conversion. The key difference between conversion and theft lies in the lawful possession element. In theft, the offender never had the right to possess the property, while in conversion, the person might have initially had the right to possess it but later misused it.

Conversion According to the Model Penal Code

The Model Penal Code (MPC), which is a guideline used to assist U.S. states in developing their own statutory law, does not explicitly define conversion. Instead, it discusses theft and similar offenses. According to the MPC, a person is guilty of theft if they “unlawfully take, or exercise unlawful control over, movable property of another with purpose to deprive him thereof.” This definition can be interpreted to include conversion, as the act of conversion involves taking or exercising control over someone else’s property with the intent to deprive them of it.

Essential Elements of Conversion

To establish that a defendant is guilty of conversion, the prosecution generally must prove several elements beyond a reasonable doubt. First, the defendant must have taken possession of someone else’s property. Second, the taking must have been wrongful, meaning it was without the owner’s consent or beyond the scope of the owner’s permission. Third, the defendant must have intended to keep the property or use it for their own benefit. Finally, the defendant must have exercised control over the property in a way that was inconsistent with the owner’s rights.

Penalties for Conversion

The penalties for this can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction and the value of the property involved. In some jurisdictions, conversion involving property of low value might be charged as a misdemeanor, while instances involving high-value property might be charged as a felony. Penalties can range from fines and community service to imprisonment. For example, a misdemeanor conversion charge might result in a fine and probation, while a felony charge could lead to a significant fine and several years in prison.


In summary, conversion is a serious crime that involves wrongfully taking and using someone else’s property as if it were your own. It’s a unique form of theft that can happen even when the initial possession of the property was lawful.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/14/2023


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