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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

  • 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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