Here we have what may be, at least potentially, the most serious case of failure to return a rented video in U.S. history. By “serious” I don’t mean the crime itself, which is trivial, or should be, but its potential consequences.
As you may recall, we have considered at least three prior criminal-failure-to-return-a-rented video cases here.
In 2010, Aaron Henson of Littleton, Colorado, was jailed for failing to return House of Flying Daggers to his local public library, the proceedings in that case being sufficiently farcical that the judge who jailed him got fired. See “Arrest Warrant Based on Overdue DVD Is Last Straw for Colorado Judge” (Apr. 9, 2010). But at least House of Flying Daggers is a worthy film, so the item they believed had been stolen had value.
That was not the case in 2014, when Kayla Finley was arrested in South Carolina for failure to return a rented video—and I mean literally: the charge was “larceny—failure to return a rented video”—after somebody noticed she had forgotten to return Monster-in-Law almost nine years before. See “Woman Arrested Nine Years After Failing to Return Rented Video” (Feb. 17, 2014); “Accused Videotape-Keeper Beats the Rap” (Feb. 20, 2014). Finley went to the sheriff’s office to report a “domestic situation,” and a helpful officer then arrested her on the nine-year-old warrant for this heinous crime. This was despite the fact that neither the video store that complained nor the statute that made this a crime still existed in 2014. It was also despite the fact that Monster-in-Law sucked hard enough that Finley would arguably have benefited society by throwing it into a bonfire or swamp rather than returning it so the store could inflict it on someone else. (Roger Ebert wanted to just enjoy watching Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez, but “did not succeed” because “my reveries were interrupted by bulletins from my conscious mind, which hated the movie.” One star.)
Two years later, an even greater injustice was done when James Myers was arrested in North Carolina for failing to return Freddy Got Fingered in 2002. See “Man Arrested 14 Years After Failing to Return Terrible Video” (Mar. 24, 2016). An officer noticed this warrant when checking on Myers during a traffic stop, and to his credit did not arrest him for it, telling Myers to just go to the station later and work it out. He did—and was promptly arrested. This was despite the fact that Freddy Got Fingered sucked nearly twice as hard as Monster-in-Law, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of only 10%. There are movies with lower ratings, but the difference probably isn’t statistically significant, and to my knowledge Roger Ebert has never called any other movie a “vomitorium.” (No stars.) Again, losing or destroying a copy of this movie would be a public service.
At this point, I originally launched into a brief history of what is now Oklahoma, which has only been a state since 1907. But though brief, it was still way too long. (This is shorter, although mine was funnier.) What triggered the research was my struggle to identify the relevant statute in 1999, when Caron McBride allegedly failed to return the movie, which was stored as magnetic data in a cassette format known as “VHS.” It appears that the embezzlement statute in force then was still the version in the 1910 codification, which defined “embezzlement” as “the fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been entrusted.” Okla. Rev. L. § 2670 (1910). To me the “larceny” charge makes more sense, but I guess you could say the video store “entrusted” the movie to her. (Oklahoma cases say larceny requires criminal intent at the time the property’s taken; if the bad intent arises later, that’s embezzlement.) Either way, the crime would have been a misdemeanor.
In 2002—after McBride was charged—Oklahoma amended its embezzlement statute significantly. Now, “embezzlement” is “the fraudulent appropriation of property of any person or legal entity, legally obtained, to any use or purpose not intended or authorized by its owner, or the secretion of the property with the fraudulent intent to appropriate it to such use or purpose, under any of the following circumstances:” followed by nine specific circumstances, the last of which is “Where the property is possessed or controlled by virtue of a lease or rental agreement, and the property is willfully or intentionally not returned within ten (10) days after the expiration of the agreement.” (I didn’t say they improved it.) 21 Okla. Stat. § 1451. Whoever wrote this version should be forced to watch Freddy Got Fingered, but it does seem to apply to the intentional keeping of rented movies. But even under the current statute, embezzlement is a misdemeanor if the property is worth less than $1,000, or, as Oklahoma insists on writing it, “One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00).” So why McBride was ever charged with felony embezzlement is a mystery to me.
But she was. Her crime came to the attention of law enforcement when she tried to change the name on her driver’s license after getting married. Told to contact the Cleveland County DA’s office to resolve an “issue,” she did, and was surprised at what she heard. “She told me [the felony charge] was over the VHS tape and I had to make her repeat it because I thought, this is insane. This girl is kidding me, right? She wasn’t kidding.”
McBride said she didn’t remember ever renting the movie, and speculated that the man she lived with at the time might have rented it for his two daughters. It seems unlikely that there’s any proof she did rent it, unless the cops kept a receipt in their storage locker, because the movie place (called “Movie Place”) has been closed for 14 years. And either for that reason or just common sense, the DA’s office said that it had decided to dismiss the case.
McBride suspects that some damage has already been done. She said that during the last two decades, she’s been let go from several jobs without being given a reason, and now thinks this might explain why. “[W]hen they ran my criminal background check,” she said, “all they’re seeing is those two words: felony embezzlement.” Since it probably didn’t say “of a VHS tape of Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” that’s not too implausible.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch was not reviewed by enough critics to have a Tomatometer score (it seems to have been a TV movie), but does have a 52% audience rating.