CONCORD, N.H. — Spouses or business partners can be convicted of stealing even if they have a joint interest in the property taken, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday.
The court’s ruling marks the first time it has addressed the subject of whether someone who shares a joint checking account can be convicted of theft. The court upheld nine theft convictions against Karen Gagne, 58, of Andover.
Gagne was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her friend Alice Jane Fair of Concord between 2007 and 2009.
The two started a joint checking account in 2007 with the understanding that Gagne would help Fair pay her bills.
Gagne’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
Justice James Bassett noted that the court’s ruling is the first time it has addressed whether a party to a joint checking account can be convicted of stealing from another party by making unauthorized withdrawals.
The law has been on the books since an overhaul of the criminal code in 1969 established that a partner can be convicted of stealing partnership property.
‘‘What is important is that the thief sets out to appropriate a property interest beyond any privilege established by the arrangement,’’ Bassett wrote.
The ruling provides guidance to police officers and other investigators in exploitation cases and offers an important safeguard for victims, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Cahill said.
‘‘It’s very valuable to have the Supreme Court weigh in on this legal question of whether one can commit a crime by stealing from a joint account,’’ he said.
Prosecutors established during an eight-day trial in 2011 that Gagne directed Pleasant View nursing home in Concord to deliver Fair’s bills to her and that she assured administrators she would pay the bills.
Pleasant View administrators contacted the New Hampshire attorney general’s office in 2009 when they were about to take legal action against Fair because her account was so delinquent.
Prosecutors say Gagne used Fair’s money to pay her own bills and to buy a home.
The high court threw out two convictions, ruling that Fair had authorized certain transfers of money to Gagne’s personal account and to pay off the balance of a $90,000 personal loan Gagne had taken out.
Gagne’s sentence will not be reduced despite the conviction reversals because her sentences on those counts were to run concurrently with other 10-to-20-year sentences on the nine remaining convictions, Cahill said.
Fair died June 30 at Pleasant View.