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I experienced a common scenario today: I was walking along and found someone's lost phone on the ground. It was out of battery, so what I wanted to do was take it home, charge it, and then see if we could call someone to get the phone back. In fact, I have lost my phone before and this is exacttly what some stranger did. However, it was pointed out to me today that I could be legally responsible if I take an item home that isn't mine, even if my intention is to return it to its owner.

Is it true anywhere in the United States that I could face legal consequences for taking home someone's lost item, intending to get it returned to them?

What if I don't intend to return it? Finders keepers?

To be safe, I dropped it off at a police station instead, but the police there did not respond very well. They seemed annoyed that we brought the phone in, and did not have a designated lost-and-found. Given their response, I would be more confident that the phone would be returned if I had taken it home myself.

Related (not duplicate) questions

Is it legal to stop somebody taking your stuff if you've left it somewhere? Most of the things here are about what you can do to someone who is trying to take your item. However, the answer does state this:

The phone in question has been mislaid and anyone who finds it has a duty to deliver it to the owner of the bench for safekeeping pending the true owner's return: if the owner does not return within a reasonable time the phone becomes the property of the bench owner (e.g. the city that owns the park).

Perhaps this applies here and it is not allowed to take it home, only to return it to the owner of the property on which it was left.

Can a store sell merchandise I've left in the store? The answer explains that there is a distinction between lost, mislaid, and abandoned. This distinction probably applies here, but I do not know whether it is legal to take a lost, mislaid, or abandoned object home in order to try to identify its owner.

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There are two issues, one is the legal issue of whether what you are doing is a crime, and the other is the evidentiary issue of proving that that is what happened.

If you take the phone home with the intention of keeping it ('finders keepers') then you have committed larceny (sometimes called 'theft', sometimes correctly). This specific type is called 'larceny by finding'.

If you take the phone home with the intention of finding the owner then you have not committed larceny because you have not committed the mental element ('mens rea') of the offence: you don't intend to permanently deprive the owner of their rights. However, and this is the evidentiary issue, if hypothetically you were found in possession of the phone then the police might not believe your explanation and a court might well convict you of larceny.

P.S. Firefox has marked 'evidentiary' as a spelling error and suggested 'penitentiary' instead. :s

  • 1
    It would be helpful if there were a common convention for identifying what number or numbers one should call if a phone is found. Most finders would not be comfortable calling random strangers to say that they found a phone, and many people would prefer that at least some numbers on their phone not be called by a random "finder". – supercat Dec 19 '18 at 16:46
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    @supercat: Most modern phones have an "emergency information" feature. You can enter emergency information (such as name, medical information and numbers to call in an emergency), and that information is accessible (and allows dialing the numbers listed) even if the phone is locked. Android has "Emergency information" (since Android 7), while iPhones have "Medical ID" (since iOS 8). While this is mostly intended for medical emergencies, you can also use it to contact someone if you find the phone. – sleske May 8 '20 at 16:45
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This is a classic property law question.

First of all, based on the facts presented above, it's almost certainly not a crime. So as far as 'trouble,' you're fine. The worst that would happen, legally, is you'd have to give it to someone with a stronger claim to the property than yours.

Second, the phrases "finders keepers" and "possession is 9/10 of the law," are actually pretty accurate descriptions of American law as it pertains to personal property. If that's the one rule of personal property law that you know, you're not doing poorly.

To be more technical, the general rule is "[a] finder of property acquires no rights in mislaid property, is entitled to possession of lost property against everyone except the true owner, and is entitled to keep abandoned property." Michael v. First Chicago Corp., 139 Ill. App. 3d 374, 382 (Ill. 1985). So, how strong your claim to the phone would be, and, conversely, how likely you would be to have to give it to someone else, depends on which of those buckets the phone falls in.

This all turns on the intent that the owner had when she dropped it (or put it down). If she intended to put it down and relinquish her claim to it, it's abandoned property. Com. v. Wetmore, 301 Pa. Superior Ct. 370, 373 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1982). Given that you just found it on the ground, I think it's unlikely the prior owner intended to get rid of it. There would be stronger proof of that intent if you found it in a trash can. So, I think we can eliminate the possibility that it was abandoned.

Mislaid property is essentially property that was 'forgotten' in a place where the true owner intended to set it down. The classic example taught in law schools across the country is setting down your wallet in a barber shop. McAvoy v. Medina, 93 Mass. (11 Allen) 548 (1866). Inside outside is probably a pretty good distinction to make here. So, since this phone was found outside on the ground, it seems unlikely the true owner intended to set it down there. I think we can eliminate mislaid property.

This leaves lost property, which is property that was set down unintentionally by the owner and left behind. Benjamin v. Lindner Aviation, Inc., 534 N.W.2d 400 (Iowa 1995) ("Property is lost when the owner unintentionally and involuntarily parts with its possession and does not know where it is") (quoting Ritz v. Selma United Methodist Church, 467 N.W.2d 266, 269 (Iowa 1991)). Given the circumstances under which you found the phone, this seems to me to be the most likely scenario. So, you would likely be entitled to keep the phone unless the true owner wanted it back. Michael, 139 Ill. App. 3d at 382.

Two final points. First, individual states can change and vary these rules. Second, you did the right thing, morally, by turning it into the police.

I'm not a lawyer; I'm just a law student. I'm certainly not your lawyer.

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Colin Losey is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
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Well, I don't find it illegal but if you're selling it to someone and it's a lost phone then it could be illegal. But if you only got it from someone it's not illegal and you must call them. There's pretty much nothing you can do about it if someone sold it to you.

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HiIAmLonely is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Are you able to discuss the law here? – Pat W. Jan 15 at 16:53

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