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Law: Picked Something on the Street; Can you keep it?

Updated on May 8, 2015

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The Case of Michelle

Working as a security guard, Michelle was walking at 6.30 am next to her workplace when two bags containing $500,000 on transit to the bank fell out of an armored vehicle. It was on a Monday and she immediately took time off her job to go gambling in Las Vegas. She lost all the money in the gamble but received her inheritance which she had been expecting by the time she picked the money. On Thursday of the same week she used her inheritance to hand in all $500,000 to the local FBI office. The main issue is: was she under obligation to return the money and without any delay?

Relevant Legal Concepts

Citizens who pick up property on the street or in other public places are generally expected to trace their owners and give them back. But when that is not possible then the police are the next option. However, police officers are also under the legal obligation that when the property stays unclaimed for 28 days then the finder becomes the legal owner (Shubert, 2009, 125).

Only items which may contain personal information such as a phone or laptop are exempted from this rule and will be destroyed. Money is a totally different matter altogether since it does not belong to anyone, unless the owner is known [the local bank] as in Michelle’s case. Picking the money itself was not illegal, in fact it was a civic duty (Shubert, 2009, 125).

Failing to hand it in immediately was not right, but then it is not clear in law that it was an offence either, since the motive of keeping the money for herself cannot be established, it was difficult to accuse her of theft. There is also no clearcut provision on a specific time when a lost and found item should be handed in to the police (Papworth, 2012, 4). However, since she knew who the money belonged to, it was prudent to return it. Failure to return it when she knew the owner would be tantamount to theft for as long as she knew the owner (Papworth, 2012, 4).

Relevant Case Law

The only legal proceedings available exist where individuals failed to submit such large sums of money and ended up using it themselves and were caught in the process (Papworth, 2012, 4). However, there are no legal precedents that can be immediately found for handing in money late. Nevertheless, a church in York found a bag containing $100,000 at its doorstep one day in 2003. They promptly handed it in to the police station, but got to keep the money after the owner could not be traced for 28 days (Papworth, 2012, 4).

The conclusion here is that she had an obligation to hand in the money to the FBI especially because she knew the owner (Papworth, 2012, 4); she should have still handed it in even if she did not know the owner. However, she did not commit any crime by handing it in three days later. In any case, she handed in all the money which was a sign of honesty. Nothing could have stopped her for instance, from keeping the contents of one bag and claiming she had only found one. However, it would be tantamount to stealing if she kept all the money yet she knew very well who the rightful owner was, and that the FBI were probably looking for it once it was reported lost. For finders of lost property, the law simply requires that the item found is returned to the owner if known, or handed in to the police. When exactly the handing in must be done is still a grey area in law. The assumption is that you will hand it in as soon as it is practically possible.

References

Papworth, J. (2012, July 2). “Should Finders be Keepers Regardless of Value?” The Guardian

Shubert, F. A. (2009). Introduction to Law and the Legal System. Mason, OH: Cengage.

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