What if you find something that is not labeled with the owner’s name, the way shopping carts are? Does that count as theft? Suppose you find something that seems impossible to trace, is it still illegal to have that item?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****
 
Having possession of lost property can count as theft. The basic definition of theft has three components:
1. possessing something that belongs to someone else
2. without the owner’s permission and
3. intending to deprive the owner of it[1]
If police believe that these three components are true, they can charge theft. Most state codes have a broad theft statute like this[2] as well as specialized varieties of theft such as burglary, robbery, and grand theft auto. In some states, the basic theft law might have an additional component: taking the item. This does not have to mean that someone took an item away from the owner while the owner was actually holding it; it can mean that he took it away from where he found it. [3] (Note that state codes might use the words “larceny” or “theft” instead of “stealing”.)
Alternatively, under the right circumstances, police can charge a finder of lost goods with possessing or receiving stolen property. The basic components of those crimes are: 1. that the accused knew the item was stolen, 2. that the accused had control over the item, 3. that the accused intended to keep the item from the owner and, 4. that the item really was stolen.<[4]

The Model Penal Code, a set of criminal law examples that most states have incorporated or adapted for their own criminal codes, has category of larceny specifically about keeping lost property. It has three components:
1. the finder knows that the item was mistakenly dropped or left behind
2. the finder has the opportunity to return the item, but does not return it and
3. the finder intends to deprive the owner of it[5]
Some of the states that have codified this law are New York[6], Montana[7][8],Idaho, and Oregon[9] There are hundreds of cases, from all over the country, analyzing the circumstances under which keeping found property can count as theft. To find these cases in case indexes published by West, look under the topic of Larceny key 10.

Some states, rather than punishing finders of lost items, have laws establishing incentives for returning found property. In Iowa, a long-time law requires that people whose lost property is returned pay ten percent of its value as a reward to the finder.[10] In Alabama and California, a finder is entitled to be repaid for money spent to protect or return lost property.[11] In Illinois and New Jersey, a finder is entitled to keep the lost property if the person who lost it has not claimed it within six months.[12] In Wisconsin, the wait is only ninety days. [13] In Massachusetts, Iowa, and New York, it is a full year.[14] In Oregon, a finder only has to report the finding to authorities if it is worth more than $100 and then wait three months to be named the legitimate owner.[15] Iowa has even taken the step of legislating that finders are not financially responsible for accidental damage done to found goods. [16]

 After the police charge someone with a crime, a court determines whether the accused defendant is guilty of the crime. As you can see from the previous paragraphs, all of the possible theft charges against finders of lost property included two hard-to-prove facts: what the finder knew and what he intended.

Failure to return found property requires proof that the finder knew that the item was lost while theft requires proof that he knew the item still belonged to another person and receiving stolen property requires that he knew that the item was stolen. Intent is the same in all three charges; he intended to deprive the owner of the item. Since knowledge and intent both happen inside the head, a finder can defend himself by disproving the accusations about what he knew or intended when he found the item.

Here is an example to consider:
Suppose a homeless person finds a coat on a bench in the park where he sleeps and, because the evening is getting cold, he puts the coat on and plans to keep it for the winter. A month later, the police catch him with the coat and arrest him.

To show that he did not know the coat was lost or stolen when he found it, he can say and demonstrate that he believed the coat was abandoned or even donated. He might cross examine a police officer to get testimony about the known presence of homeless people in the park. He might bring other homeless people as witnesses to testify that people bring clothing and food donations to them in the park. He might be able to prove that there was often garbage near this bench which led him to believe that this coat may also have been tossed there as garbage.

To show that he did not intend to deprive the owner of the coat, he might ask witnesses to testify that they continued to see  him residing in the park after finding the coat which was a way of making the coat visible to the owner if he came back looking for it. He might say that he wore the coat intending to protect it from being blown away or discarded before the owner came back for it.

There are many ways of defending against a charge that by keeping a found item someone has broken the law. But if a found item seems valuable or can be traced to an owner, a finder should know that the item was lost or stolen and a prosecutor will likely accuse him of knowing that if he is caught with the item. Finders can avoid criminal charges by taking valuables and labeled items to the police before assuming that they can keep them.


 [i] Black’s Law Dictionary 1516 (8th ed. 1999).[ii] 50 Am. Jur. 2d. Larceny § 2 (2006).[iii] 50 Am. Jur. 2d. Larceny § 14 (2006).[iv] Model Penal Code §223.6 (1962). See also, Wayne R. LaFave, Criminal Law §20.2 (4th Ed. 2003); Carroll J. Miller, What Constitutes “Constructive” Possession of Stolen Property to Establish the Requisite Element of Possession Supporting an Offense of Receiving Stolen Property” 30 A.L.R. 4th 488 (1984).[v] Model Penal Code §223.5 declares that “A person who comes into control of property of another that he knows to have been lost, mislaid, or delivered under a mistake as to the amount of the property or the identity of the recipient is guilty of theft if, with purpose to deprive the owner thereof, he fails to take reasonable measures to restore the property to a person entitled to have it.” Model Penal Code § 2235 (1962).

[vi] N.Y. Penal Law § 155.05 (McKinney 2007); N.Y. Penal Law § 165.40 (McKinney 2007).

[vii] Mont. Code Ann. § 45-6-302 (2005).

[viii] Idaho Code §18-2403(2)(c) (Michie 2007).

[ix] OR. REV. STAT. § 164.065 (2006).

[x] Iowa Code § 556F.13 (2004); Flood v. City Nat’l. Bank, 253 N.W. 509 (Iowa 1934); State v. Couch, 92 N.W. 2d 580, 582 (Iowa 1958).

[xi] Auto. Ins. Co. v. Kirby, 144 So. 123 (Ala. Ct. App. 1932); Cal. Civ. Code § 2080 (West 2007).

[xii] 765 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 1020/28 (West 2006); N.J. Stat. Ann. § 40A:14-157 (West 2007).

[xiii] Wis. Stat. § 170.10 (2006).

[xiv] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 134, § 4 (West 2007); Iowa Code § 556F.11 (2005); N.Y. Pers. Prop. § 257 (McKinney 2007).

[xv] Or. Rev. Stat. § 98.005 (2006).

[xvi] Iowa Code § 556F.16 (2005). 

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2 Comments »

  1. Jenny said

    A dayare provider had her purse stolen about 8 mo. She did file a police report and I stopped going to her 2 mo. after. I found one similar at a rummage sale 4 mo.later but lining and tages were gone, I bought it for $5. I was with a frind at the time. The owner saw me with it and said I stole it. She called police. The oolice asked me some questions about how I got. I told them and I have a witness. They never jtook the purse only pictures of the outside. Now I am being issued a citaton of possession of stolen property. Cause he said he does not belive us. Will this be a criminal record or should I go to court and fight it. What should I do?? This in Wisconsin

  2. Jenny said

    My question is, the cop says he is issuing a citaion but I do not have to go to court. Is this going to stay on my record or shoud I fight this, do I need a lawyer. I can’t remember which house because we went to 20-30 houses that day and the ling was out of it, thar accuser says it’s Coach and is very unique but she told me that she found one like the one that was stolen. The cop does not belive m, how can he issue a citaion for possession of stolen property and he never took the purse w/him after i offered!!

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