After reading this question:

Borrow something and return it considered stealing?

I got the impression that, other than a bike, if I borrow stuff from random people without their consent and return it later, it's not illegal. Which sounds extremely unrealistic, but not being in the law field and knowing very little of it, I wouldn't doubt.

So that is my question: generally speaking (meaning, except when there are specific laws, like the bike laws cited above) is it not illegal to borrow things without consent?

  • How does the prevoius question you linked to not answer your question?
    – Brandin
    Sep 6 '18 at 10:47
  • Exactly because that question's answer show legislation specific to bikes. What about if someone takes a fork from me? Or my Teddy bear? My shovel? I want to know about everything else.
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 15:10

As explained in the question you linked to, this is not (in most jurisdictions) theft. That does not mean it is legal; the legislature may have established another law that forbids whatever it may be (for example, taking a motor vehicle without owner's consent is a crime in England, which is less serious and easier to prove than car theft). If there isn't a law against it, it's not illegal; what are you actually asking?

  • I'm asking exactly about the things that don't have a specific law. In other words, I'm asking of there isn't a "blanket law" that covers everything else for which there is no specific law. For example, what if my neighbor borrows my book without my consent or awareness? My guitar? My shoe? Because there's no specific law to those, is it totally ok to take them and people can simply go on borrowing whatever they want?
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 15:14
  • "If there isn't a law against it, it's not illegal" is really all that Law.SE can say. If somebody borrows your book and does not infringe some other law (such as trespass) he is not breaking the law. In normal parlance that is not the same as "It's totally OK" and you can remonstrate forcefully or lock up your possessions in future; what you can't do is call the police. Sep 6 '18 at 15:30
  • Ok, thanks. Yeah, when I say "it's totally ok" I mean ok under the law. Thanks for the answer! :) btw, your comment is regarding law in England, is that correct?
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 15:32
  • No, the whole point is that "unless there's a law against it it's not illegal" is universal (not to mention tautologous). Different jurisdictions may have different laws about invasion of privacy or returning property, and a complaint that "In borrowing my book he broke law X" may or may not hold up; simply "He borrowed my book" will be laughed at anywhere. Sep 6 '18 at 15:39
  • Mm. I find it hard to believe (although not too too hard) that all other countries would also not have a blanket law saying people can't borrow stuff without consent. But what do I know, that's why I'm here asking the question. ;) Excuse me now as I go create a petition for such law. lol ;)
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 15:42

There are two subsets of illegal things: things which you shouldn't do and can suffer some consequences, and things that are crimes, and might be sent to prison or fined for doing it. There is no generic law making "borrowing without authorization" a crime, though there may be specific laws making it a crime to borrow without authorization in the case of a car, bike, etc. or borrowing from a rental facility without authorization. You may, however, sue a person for borrowing without authorization, because they don't have a legal right to borrow your stuff, you can sue them to retrieve your property, and you may be able to obtain compensation if they caused you harm in borrowing your property. It thus depends on which sense of "illegal" you mean. If you call the police to get your hedge trimmer back from a neighbor, they may tell you to handle it yourself or they may have a friendly chat with the neighbor, but they almost certainly won'r arrest him because he didn't commit a crime.

  • Many thanks. Yes, since my knowledge of law super limited, I don't even know very well the right words to express what I mean by illegal. But what I mean is: would there be any legal actions I could take about it? Or all I can do is pout? If I can sue them for borrowing without authorization, that's already a legal action I can take... right? Sorry, again, my law-related vocabulary is super layman's. :/ I don't want to know if the borrower will necessarily be arrested; but if there can be any legal consequences, something beyond just maybe losing friends or getting cursed at.
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 19:05
  • 2
    Usually we interpret "(il)legal" as meaning the broader thing including "is a crime" and "is something you can sue over". Thing is, "illegal" isn't actually a well-defined legal term.
    – user6726
    Sep 6 '18 at 19:13
  • 1
    ok, good to know. It seems like I asked the right way then. :D
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 20:15
  • @msb Because we're in the realm of definitions, outside of the "criminal" context—and depending on the jurisdiction—the taking of property is also covered by things like conversion and trover.
    – Pat W.
    Jan 8 '19 at 23:41

Let's say you borrowed something, I find out immediately and call the police, and you are found in posession of my things, without my permission. The question is not whether it was legal, the question is whether you can convince a judge or jury that you are not a thief beyond a reasonablee doubt. Good luck.

But you are not just borrowing and returning. You are using my things. Say you "borrow" my lawnmower, which means any wear and tear is on my lawnmower, not yours. So you are causing me damage. And I can't cut the lawn while you "borrowed" my lawnmower, so you are depriving me, so it's theft.

And if you return my things before the police catches you, then you still have a problem. If the police think you only returned things because you are afraid you will get caught, then it is still theft. If you dragged my things out of the door and then realise that what you are doing is still a bad idea, that may be attempted theft.

  • Right, thanks for the input. In the 1st case, if I return before you find out, but you do find out eventually, then it's easy to prove it's not theft because I returned it... then I didn't do anything wrong, is it? The same in the 2nd case, the borrowing itself is not a problem, even though you didn't consent. The problem is that I used it. So assuming I didn't use it (or there was no wear&tear/damage), again nothing wrong, right? Whoever you accept into your home can just take whatever they want without your consent, as long as you don't notice, and they eventually return it undamaged?
    – msb
    Sep 6 '18 at 17:25
  • @msb No. Just because you never get caught, does not mean you have not deprived someone of their property. Suppose you take some property from me and suppose it just happens that I never notice that that property is missing. Maybe you will never be prosecuted, but you have still taken my property without my consent.
    – Brandin
    Sep 7 '18 at 6:30
  • @Brandin I know that. My question is, is it illegal? Maybe the person will never be prosecuted because they never get caught, because the owner never notices it. But if the owner did notice, if the person did get caught, would it be illegal? Would they be prosecuted?
    – msb
    Sep 7 '18 at 8:47
  • Actually, the question would be whether the defense can raise reasonable doubt that it wasn't actually theft. Were I a juror, I'd be real suspicious of such a defense, and I'd hate to have to rely on it as a defendant. Sep 10 '18 at 21:25
  • Let's say you take my lawnmower, I say "someone stole my lawnmower, good that I have a camera recording my garden shed", and you return it, that is most likely theft. Returning the lawnmower would just by trying to cover up your crime.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 8 '19 at 20:37

Usually, borrowing without consent is called "stealing".

Some jurisdictions (like the question you link to) may not call it theft, but it is almost always illegal. Otherwise, among other problems, it would create a loophole rendering any theft de facto permissible.

At best you might convince the owner to retroactively exonerate you, by stating that he gave consent to the borrowing. But in theory the state could prove that at the time you borrowed the item, the owner could not yet have given consent, and therefore you did steal it - although I doubt that any prosecutor would bother with such nonsense, if the owner doesn't even wish to press charges. If they do press charges, you will have a very hard time with the "I was just borrowing" defense in court.

One might wonder, if you give it back before the owner knows, where's the harm? Well firstly you have no way of knowing the future, and the owner might end up suddenly needing it before you return it, so you are depriving them of the opportunity to use it: Imagine you "borrowed" a hospital's ambulance for a day. Second, you are putting wear and tear on the item, thus depriving the owner of some fraction of its useful life. You might even return it in a worse state that requires costly maintenance or repair.

I think one obvious exception to this is when there exists a mutual understanding of "communal goods". If everybody including the owner agrees that certain items are common use (like a pot in a shared kitchen), no indication was ever given that the item is not to be taken without permission (such as a sign) and the item is left unsecured in an unrestricted area, it would be very difficult to argue theft and prove it beyond reasonable doubt.


Well, it depends mainly on (i) your intent and (ii) the value of the borrowed asset. If your intent was to borrow it and maybe not returning it or the value was significant, it would be most likely qualified as theft or attempted theft.

The other circumstances, however, may change the qualification, e.g. you were in need to protect other asset/life/health, or you have provided a guarantee (like your ID), or the borrowed assets were "left behind" on a public place or the owner was not easily to be determined, etc.

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