“Finders Keepers” or “Theft by Finding”
Finding something valuable like a sum of money is exciting, but as tempting as it might be, keeping it without taking adequate steps to locate the owner could leave you facing criminal charges. Although many people argue that there should be a finder’s keepers law, being entitled to keep something you find isn’t supported by the law in NSW. Larceny by finding is a criminal offence, which comes with harsh penalties if you are found guilty.
Can you be prosecuted for theft by finding?
There have been a number of different cases where people have been charged with larceny after finding and keeping money or other items of value. In 2010, a couple in Melbourne were charged with larceny by finding after they bought a second-hand suitcase from a Salvation Army shop and found $100,000 in cash stuffed inside. After they found the money, they made no attempts to return it or to find the rightful owners, and tried to hide the cash in numerous bank accounts.
They were eventually traced through the eftpos records from the sale and had to return the money.
If police can prove that you appropriated property that wasn’t your own with the intentions of permanently depriving the owner, you can potentially be charged with theft by finding. Even taking the property with the intention to return it later may not be a valid defence. If you find valuable property or cash, you will need to prove that you took reasonable measures to find and return the property to its rightful owner in order to be sure that you won’t end up facing charges. Most charges of theft by finding relate to larger sums of money or property of value, such as jewelry. It is unlikely that you will end up in court for finding $20 on the ground and keeping it.
But that said
Nicole Bailey thought it was her lucky day when she stumbled across a loose bank note and picked it up and took it home with her. But her lucky find was another person’s loss, and they had reported it missing.
So later, Nicole found herself hauled before a court and charged with theft because she pocketed the £20 ($35AUD) she found in a shop. Nicole was charged by police after being caught on CCTV. The 23-year-old thought it was a case of “finder’s keepers” when she spotted the note lying in a store freezer cabinet in a store in Staffordshire, England.
But it had been dropped by a wheelchair-bound customer — who alerted staff when he discovered his cash was gone. The store staff checked CCTV and found footage of Nicole picking up the money. The police were called and they charged Nicole with theft. The Sun reported Nicole initially denied taking the £20 note but admitted her actions after she was shown the CCTV footage.
In court Nicole was given a six-month good behaviour bond. Nicole’s lawyer Simon Dykes said police should have simply given the woman, who has no previous convictions, a warning. He said she didn’t know who the money belonged to and her move was a little naïve. “People don’t realise that picking up something you have found amounts to a theft. She has been quite naive in doing so,” he says. Nicole also had to pay almost $300AUD in legal costs.
Staffordshire Police chief inspector Karen Stevenson encouraged any member of the public who picked up money that had been dropped to be honest. “Do the right thing by taking all reasonable steps to try to find the owner,” she says.
A NSW Police spokesperson gave Kidspot the same advice. He said if a person picked up money off the ground they could definitely be charged with theft. “If you do find money on the ground, take it to a police station and they will make inquiries to locate the owner. If they can’t they will contact you back to claim the items.“You can be charged with larceny by finding, or goods in custody, if you don’t have a reasonable excuse. Technically that’s the law, it’s not finder’s keepers.”
When it Comes to Prospecting Things Get Even Greyer
If you were to find a hiden cache, say left by a family who owned the farm 100 years ago or maybe even a stash from the bushranger days, it becomes your responsibility to prove the stash was lost. If you cannot do this then the crown or government has claim over your find. If say the stash you find is hidden neatly in a box or jar under a tree, the crown can argue that it was not lost and was placed there to be collected later. Therefore the goods were not abandoned but hidden. It becomes your responsibility to prove the goods were in fact abandoned. This makes life a bit harder.
I guess its better to be safe than sorry, always err on the side of caution and protect yourself from prosecution.
So Who owns discarded property?
If you do see something that you would like to have on the side of the road, or somewhere else where it does not appear to be in the possession of anyone, can you take it? If you do, does it become yours?
The old children’s rhyme “Finders keepers, losers weepers” might apply, but the answer to these questions may not always be simple, particularly as it may be necessary to get inside the mind of the owner, or former owner, of the article, and the mind of the finder, to determine their intentions in relation to the article.
Intention to abandon or appropriate
The law in Australia is not completely clear, but the main accepted view expressed is that the owner of an article can abandon or renounce ownership of the article by parting with possession (if held by the owner) and by forming an intention to abandon the article and ownership of it.
Someone who finds, or comes into possession of, an abandoned article may become the owner of the article by appropriating it; that is by taking or keeping possession of the article and by forming the intention to own it.
How is intention ascertained?
Usually, the intention of a person who appropriates an article will be clear, but it may be difficult to ascertain or infer the intention of an owner of an article who may, or may not, have had the intention to abandon the article (the “first owner”). Usually, the first owner will not be known if an article that is apparently lost or abandoned is found, and the first owner may not express any intention in relation to the article.
It is possible for the first owner to make an express declaration of intention to abandon an article in an agreement, or otherwise, but this is unusual.
If an article is found, the circumstances in which it is found may indicate the likelihood of an intention to abandon the article, or the opposite. Articles which are merely lost are not abandoned.
Size may matter
If you find something like an old lounge suite or a table on the side of the road or in a public space there is a fair chance that it is not there by accident but has been abandoned and left with the intention that anyone who wants it may have it (appropriate it).
On the other hand, if you find something small and valuable, such as a gold nugget found by a school girl in a railway station or a Pentax camera left on a fence4 it would seem unlikely that these have been abandoned.
The place of finding an article may also give an indication as to the likely intention of the first owner to abandon the article, or not. Something found at a public rubbish dump would normally be taken to be obviously abandoned and available for appropriation by a finder. But even at the dump, finding something of real value may lead to doubt.
Finding a damaged dinghy in mangroves may not be circumstances in which it is reasonable to assume that the boat had been deliberately abandoned rather than that it had broken away from moorings. The finder of a damaged motorcycle, with parts scattered, in scrub may lead to the belief by the finder that the bike had been abandoned. However, whatever may be the belief of the finder of an article as to whether or not it has been abandoned, this does not mean that the first owner did have an intention to abandon the article.
DW Fox Tucker. (2017) Finders Keepers – Who Owns Abandoned Goods? Retrieved from http://www.dwfoxtucker.com.au/2015/03/finders-keepers-who-owns-abandoned-goods/
Kid Spot (2017) Why you should never pick up money you find on the ground. Retrieved from http://www.kidspot.com.au/parenting/real-life/in-the-news/why-you-should-never-pick-up-money-you-find-on-the-ground
Riotact.com (2017) Finders Keepers? Scavenging laws? Retrieved from https://the-riotact.com/finders-keepers-scavenging-laws/36283