Last week, I moved out of apartment complex. My U-Haul spent a fair amount of time unattended in the parking lot while I was lugging stuff out. When I got to my new apartment and unpacked my boxes, I found several boxes full of stuff that I had never seen before. Among the items that I found in these boxes were:

  • A vacuum cleaner that makes noise, but doesn't have any suction
  • A Rubik's cube with half of the stickers missing
  • An old CRT monitor with an image partially burned in
  • Shelves from a refrigerator
  • Lots of magnets, mostly dull but a few good ones
  • Instructions on how to install a door bell
  • 4 copies of the DVD Battleship

This was very strange to find this box. I'm guessing this came in my truck for 2 possible reasons:

  1. Somebody was also moving at the same time and mistakenly put it in
  2. Somebody was trying to throw away an old box of junk and just put it in my open truck and ran away

Considering how my now former neighbors would terrorize me (blasting loud music, setting loose a possum through my window, taking a dump in my mailbox), I'm guessing it's the 2nd reason, although I'm not positive.

My question is: am I under any legal obligation to try to return this box? I don't want to see my former neighbors again, but can I get in trouble if I keep this?

4 Answers 4


In California (where lost+found laws have been discussed quite a lot), this would be either "lost property" or "abandoned property". With abandoned property, you can do what you want. With lost property, it is legal to ignore it.

If you take it, you have the obligation to try to return it to the owner. If you don't do that, it's theft. If you don't take it, you have no obligation whatsoever. Put it somewhere where the loser (the person who lost it) is more likely to find it, for example on the street. Don't take anything.

Clarification for comments: There is a box. And the owner of the box is nowhere to be seen. That box is by definition lost or abandoned - it is abandoned if the owner got rid of it intentionally, it is lost if the owner is looking for it. We don't know. We can make guesses depending on the situation.

No matter whether lost or abandoned, you are legally absolutely fine if you just ignore it. You have no reason to try to return it to its owner. If you don't make it your business, it's not your business.

But if you decide you want the box, or bits of it, and it isn't abandoned (which is hard to know for sure), then you have to try to find the owner first, and if you don't find them, then you can keep it.

  • What do you mean, "if you take it?" How do you define that. Are you saying that if he does not return it he must try to find the owner? And can you point me to the CA on this? Especially the part that leads you to conclude that this is lost property.
    – jqning
    Dec 1, 2016 at 16:24
  • Can you tie the answer to OP's circumstances? OP didn't notice the odd box until after transporting it in the U-Haul to their new apartment. At that point, is it possible to "ignore" it, or has OP already "taken" it even though having no intent to do so? Can OP "undo" taking it by returning it to the original scene and then be considered as properly "ignoring"?
    – nanoman
    Oct 1, 2020 at 8:33
  • Also, in the hypothetical that OP had noticed the box before transporting it, you seem to say that handling the box to remove it from the U-Haul and place it "on the street" counts as "ignoring" it. Perhaps you can elaborate -- are you saying that to "ignore" it one should do something like "make the minimum disturbance to the box to avoid further disturbing it, when exercising rights such as driving one's vehicle"?
    – nanoman
    Oct 1, 2020 at 8:35

Contact the police, advise them of the property find and your suspicion its a prank, and ask them if they want it (they probably won't), and if not, how long they would recommend you keep it prior to disposing of it.

Alternatively simply return the items to the location the truck departed from.

  • If the cops don't want it, are you saying that this has ANYTHING to do with "legal obligation to try to return this box?" And where exactly is the loser more likely to find it. OP has no idea where it came from.
    – jqning
    Dec 1, 2016 at 16:22
  • Despite what others have said, I am not convinced you have any legal obligation to try to return the box. By notifying authorities of its location it enables someone who might be looking for it to find it. law.cornell.edu/wex/lost_property is useful and more-or-less agrees with what I've stated.
    – davidgo
    Dec 1, 2016 at 21:08

Yes you are legally obligated to try and find the real owner of the things. Possession of something that you dont have permission of the owner is either theft or handling stolen goods.

You could hand it into the police and say you found it (which you did) therefor lost property. the police will ask you details about how you think you got it. they may go/phone to your old neighbors and ask them. If nobody claims them they become yours after a set number of weeks (depending on where you are)

  • 1
    There are a lot of problems with this answer. The first sentence seems to be completely made up. And if you brought a box of garbage to our police station they'd tell you to get your garbage out of there. How the hell are cops going to phone the neighbors, they don't even know the crap belongs to the neighbors. And they are going to go to the neighborhood? Like door to door asking is this your garbage. No way man.
    – jqning
    Dec 1, 2016 at 3:45
  • "Possession of something that you dont have permission of the owner is either theft or handling stolen goods" That depends on jurisdiction; in many "theft" requires intent. If the owner lost the goods and they ended up in your hands accidentally (e.g. wrong address label on a package), that would be larceny (though sometimes this is called "theft by finding").
    – sleske
    Dec 1, 2016 at 15:57

You have no legal obligation to return the box.

And all you people who are downvoting this answer: how does one return this box? OP has no idea where it came from. Maybe someone put it in the truck during unloading, not loading. Maybe someone put it in there while the truck was stopped at a light. Maybe the rightful owner intends it to arrive at its destination and will pick it up there. You are all making a lot of assumptions.

And all of you who are talking about the police, they police aren't going to touch this. And if they did, and they say go ahead and keep it, does that change the legal obligation? If it's theft, it's theft; even if the cops don't charge it or pursue it.

Nobody can tell you that you won't get in trouble, so dispel yourself of that notion and take a dose of reality - no one is going to come looking for this stuff.

If you are still worried, take it back to the place after dark and set it down exactly where the truck was parked. Take a picture of it. And then go home and get really drunk, so you forget everything. When someone does come looking, you tell them you returned it but don't remember exactly when because you got drunk. Show them the photo.

  • 2
    I don't think that this answers the question about what the legal obligations are. While I suspect you're right that nobody will come looking for it, that's not what this person is asking in their question. Not sure how well "I got drunk" will hold up as a legal defense. Dec 1, 2016 at 4:33
  • True. I will edit the answer.
    – jqning
    Dec 1, 2016 at 16:13
  • Getting drunk is not the legal defense. You get drunk so you forget and don't perjure yourself. If you don't like getting drunk, then don't forget, you do not need to forget, you have done nothing wrong. The purpose of the forgetting is to make people go away.
    – jqning
    Dec 1, 2016 at 16:20

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