1. possessing something that belongs to someone else
2. without the owner’s permission and
3. intending to deprive the owner of it
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
Some of the states that have codified this law are New York, Montana,Idaho, and Oregon 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. In Alabama and California, a finder is entitled to be repaid for money spent to protect or return lost property. 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. In Wisconsin, the wait is only ninety days.  In Massachusetts, Iowa, and New York, it is a full year. 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. Iowa has even taken the step of legislating that finders are not financially responsible for accidental damage done to found goods. |
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).