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This question stems from this question on TheWorkplace.StackExchange.

If a manager with no power to fire an employee, but who can still "discipline" said employee, demands that everyone surrender their car keys at the start of the shift, and must ask for them back, is it theft?

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    Would the manager return them if the employer was drunk at the end of the shift? It seems like the manager is assuming some liability. – emory Apr 28 '18 at 20:56
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Probably not.

Theft generally involves an intent to permanently deprive someone of property, or knowledge that one is taking actions that have the very likely probability of permanently depriving them of property. Here, there is an intent only to hold possession of the keys during the shift and to return them.

Also, while the surrender of keys is contingent upon the incentive of further employment, it is still a voluntary surrender of the keys.

The place where theft issues could arise is if the keys are not returned by the person holding them, either at the end of the shift as punishment, or in mid-shift, if someone insists upon their return, either in an emergency or because they are sick of this manager and want to quit. If keys were retained in those circumstances upon a demand for their return, there might be a problem.

This is because continuing to refuse to surrender possession of property permissively given to someone when that permission is revoked, in the absence of a legal right to impose a possessory lien, would generally constitute theft.

While the purpose for the manager holding keys in this particular situation don't seem very valid, I can imagine circumstances (e.g. MRI technicians, jail guards, underwater divers, the site only has tandem parking), where retaining keys during a shift might be reasonable and appropriate.

  • Of course, it would only be theft of the keys, not the car. – Dale M Apr 27 '18 at 20:56
  • @DaleM No. It would amount to car theft too because control of the keys denies the owner possession of the car. – ohwilleke Apr 27 '18 at 21:57
  • But the employee could bring a second set of keys to work, so having control of one set of keys doesn't deny possession of the car, or at least does not necessarily do so. – phoog May 28 at 15:23
  • @phoog The question leaves the impression that if you brought two sets of keys to work that you would be required to surrender both of them. – ohwilleke May 28 at 17:39
  • @ohwilleke I agree that the manager in question would probably impose that requirement, but how would he enforce it? How would he know I had two sets of keys? Search me? I doubt he'd go that far. – phoog May 28 at 18:37
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Theft is removal an object without owner's consent, intending to permanently deprive the owner of the object. The only element of theft in this case is "removal of object", which also covers "borrowing". If the ultimate boss approves of the manager's plan, then unless there is a relevant contractual clause ("employees cannot be fired unless X happens", "employees shall retain the right to keep their carkeys on their person at all times"), and assuming that this is in an at-will employment jurisdiction (i.e. there is no statute that prevents employees from getting fired, and no statute recognising a right to run errands), there is no legal recourse.

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