An instrument of crime is anything commonly used, specifically adapted, or specially made for a criminal purpose or to aid in the commission of a crime.

Every crime includes certain elements that must be proven in order to find a defendant guilty. Some crimes, like burglary, require that the defendant used an instrument to commit the crime.
Instruments of crime or criminal tools may also be known as “derivative contraband.”

What are Examples of Criminal Tools?

A number of objects can be considered criminal tools. They include:

  • Screw drivers
  • Crowbars
  • Lock picking devices
  • Hammers
  • Bolt cutters
  • Drill bits
  • Explosives
  • Firearms
  • Ceramic spark plugs

Many of the items considered criminal tools have an obvious purpose for aiding in the commission of a crime. However, almost anything can be considered a criminal tool or instrument of crime if it could be used to help a person commit a crime. Even objects that do not appear to have a clear use for committing a crime can be considered criminal tools if they were actually used to facilitate a crime.

For example, in one case an iPod was considered a criminal tool because the defendant used it to store information that was stolen from a school computer. In another case a defendant’s clock radio was designated a criminal tool because it had been altered to house a spy camera that was used to illegally record unsuspecting people.

When a defendant faces drug charges they might also be charged with possession of criminal tools if they had items like scales and plastic bags in their possession. The important factor is that these objects were being used to commit a crime or the person who possessed them intended to use them as part of committing a crime. There is nothing illegal about possessing plastic baggies, unless you also intend to use them to hold drugs.

In some jurisdictions certain objects that are considered criminal tools are illegal to own or possess even if they were never used to commit a crime and even if the person possessing them had no intent to commit a crime.

The most common example is lock picking devices. In New York and New Jersey it is a crime to possess a lock picking device unless you are a licensed locksmith. If you are not a licensed locksmith and you are in possession of a set of lock picks, the law presumes that you intend to use those lock picks for an illegal purpose.

What does the Prosecutor Need to Prove to Find Me Guilty of Possession of Criminal Tools?

In some states possession of criminal tools is evidence that can be used against a defendant charged with a crime like burglary, and is also a separate crime that carries its own penalty. Possessing criminal tools can be used to demonstrate that a defendant had the required intent to commit a crime.

Many times a defendant is charged with possession of criminal tools in addition to underlying crime. Possessing criminal tools can increase the possible punishment if the defendant is convicted.

To find a person guilty of possession of criminal tools the prosecutor generally needs to prove the following:

  • The defendant had possession of the criminal tools. In some cases this can be “constructive possession,” where another person involved in the same crime was in possession of the criminal tools. In some states more than one person can be convicted for possessing the same criminal tools.
  • The defendant possessed the tools with the intent to commit a crime like burglary or robbery.
  • There was no lawful or legitimate purpose for the criminal tools under the circumstances in which the defendant possessed them.

Is Possession of Criminal Tools a Felony?

In most states possession of criminal tools is a misdemeanor. However, in some places possession of criminal tools can be a felony. For example, in Ohio, if the prosecutor can prove that the criminal tools were used in the commission of a felony, the defendant can be charged with a fifth degree felony. Conviction of a fifth degree felony is punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine.

In Virginia, the crime of “possession of burglary tools” is a fifth degree felony punishable by up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $2500.

If convicted of misdemeanor possession of criminal tools the penalty might include jail time, a fine, or possibly probation. The circumstances surrounding the possession and the specific state laws will determine the exact consequences if the defendant is found guilty.

Do I Need an Attorney to Fight a Possession of Criminal Tools Charge?

It is recommended that you consult with a criminal defense attorney if you are facing possession of criminal tools charges. Even a misdemeanor conviction can mean jail time and a significant fine.

An experienced attorney can help you understand the charges against you and your possible defenses. They can negotiate with the prosecutor and represent you in court.