By Bryce Gaston
In the fall of 2018, one of the brand new U-Haul trucks that had just arrived on the lot at a Roseville location was rented by a “J.S.” However, he provided a credit card that was not working and he failed to return the vehicle on time. A few weeks later, the truck was found abandoned at a car wash in Yuba City. It was returned to the U-Haul location in Roseville. Soon after that, surveillance footage captured J.S. returning to the lot, using a key to unlock the door of the truck and driving away with it. The vehicle was quickly reported as stolen.
On Tuesday, Corporal Pheng Ly, who has been working for the Davis Police Department for 19 years, testified that while on patrol around 2:30 am in November of 2018, he found a GMC U-Haul truck parked haphazardly in the parking lot of University Mall in Davis, CA. Upon closer inspection, the vehicle appeared to be suspicious, so he ran the license plate to see if the car was reported as stolen.
After running the license number, Corporal Ly found that the plates belonged to a Ford truck, which did not match the truck in question. Therefore, he immediately knew that the license plates were stolen. After running the VIN number on the vehicle, he found out that the truck was reported as stolen in his system.
Seeing no one inside the truck, Corporal Ly decided to do a closer inspection and realized that the driver’s side door was unlocked. He opened the door and did a quick search inside, finding a wallet belonging to J.S.
Based on his past experience investigating stolen vehicles, Corporal Ly figured that the person in possession of the stolen vehicle may soon come back for it. He therefore decided to bring several other officers to the scene and set up surveillance of the vehicle. The officers set up at different locations near and around the parked vehicle. One officer surveyed the area from the second story balcony of a nearby apartment complex.
Corporal Alex Torres, who was part of the surveillance team that night, testified that shortly after he arrived on scene he witnessed two white male adults walking together down Russell Blvd. Suddenly, they split up. One man walked into a nearby apartment complex and the other walked into the University Mall parking lot.
Corporal Ly then saw the man walk through the parking lot, pass the U-Haul vehicle and continue across the parking lot. Ly decided to perform a consensual encounter, where he stopped the individual and asked him questions, with the individual’s consent.
The individual complied and identified himself as Billy Joe Pruitt. He also consented to a body search. Corporal Ly searched his pockets, finding numerous items. When he pulled out a lanyard with a collection of keys attached to it, Pruitt immediately claimed (without being questioned) that he had just found the keys in a nearby bush.
Feeling suspicious, Corporal Ly asked Pruitt why he was out so late at night. Pruitt replied that he had gotten in a fight with his wife. Noticing that one of the keys on the lanyard belonged to a GMC vehicle, Ly decided to test it out to see if it matched the U-Haul found in the parking lot.
It turned out that the key found in Pruitt’s pocket fit into the ignition of the U-Haul and started the vehicle’s engine.
When Pruitt was further questioned, he gave a statement that earlier that night J.S., a man he had allegedly known for three days, had picked him up in Sacramento and brought him to Davis so that he could pick up another vehicle. Pruitt was supposed to drive the U-Haul back as a favor to help the guy out.
Pruitt said J.S. told him the vehicle was rented and had not been returned on time, but he claimed that he did not know the truck was stolen. He also admitted that he had walked by the vehicle in the parking lot, because he noticed the police in the area and wanted to avoid them. He said that his plan was to get the car and go pick up J.S. from another location, but wanted to wait until the police had left so that he would not get caught driving without a license.
With that, Corporal Ly decided to place Pruitt, the defendant in this case, under arrest. Pruitt was charged with two felonies: possessing a stolen vehicle and attempted theft of a vehicle. J.S. was never found that night.
During the closing arguments, the People admitted that one may feel bad for Mr. Pruitt for getting caught in possession of the vehicle since he was not the one who failed to return it on time or stole it from the U-Haul lot the second time. However, the People urged the jury to set these feelings aside and pay close attention to the law. Mr. Pruitt made several choices that night: 1) he allegedly knew that the vehicle was overdue when he first got in, and 2) he took the keys from J.S. He claimed that, according to the law, an overdue vehicle constitutes a stolen vehicle and ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse. The People claimed that if Mr. Pruitt was aware that the vehicle was stolen, then the jury had to find him guilty of his charges.
The defense’s closing argument stated that the situation was not as straightforward as it may seem and claimed Mr. Pruitt did not know that the vehicle was stolen when he took the keys. They urged the jury to find him not guilty. The jury’s verdict will be a test on whether or not they can take Mr. Pruitt’s word and believe that he truly had no idea that the vehicle was stolen when he took the keys from J.S.