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I live in New York City. Brooklyn to be exact. And while this city is far from bike friendly, there are still a lot of bikes here. Including many bikes that are clearly abandoned and utter garbage in many cases.

While the city often will go to abandoned bikes and remove them if you call in a complaint, this process is far from consistent or perfect.

So as a citizen who sees more than a few bike racks clogged with rusting bikes chained to them, what is the legality of me — as a private citizen — going up to these bikes with a few simple tools and stripping the bikes down to the bare frame?

To be clear, the bikes I am talking about are just junk at this point: Rusting drive chains and decrepit wheels with tires that are disintegrating and such. In many cases, small items such as the seat post and the stuff attached to the handle bars are gone. To any objective observer, these bikes are junk.

But my personal goal would be to dismantle them further — such as removing wheels and front forks and such — so they take up less space and thus freeing space up for people who want to legitimately lock their own bikes up?

I realize in many localities, garbage is considered municipal property and you can’t just legally pick someone’s garbage — even though people indeed do this — but in the case of an abandoned bike, does where and what the bike is locked to matter? I assume if it were private property I own, I can just snip off the chains of anything locked to my fence without issue. But I have a feeling that bikes locked to public bike racks and sign posts fall under another legal umbrella.

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    "I assume if it were private property I own, I can just snip off the chains of anything locked to my fence without issue": I wouldn't be surprised if that assumption is incorrect, but in any event that is a different question.
    – phoog
    Mar 15 at 12:06
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    If the bicycle is abandoned, you are fine. If not, it’s theft. For example, is someone steals my bike, drives around for a while then “abandons” it, it may look very abandoned to you, but it isn’t because the rightful owner didn’t abandon it.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 15 at 15:31
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    @gnasher729 That makes sense. But all the bikes I am talking about are pretty much salvage level junk. My only thought is — for example — what if someone was hospitalized for an extended period of time, their bike falls to crap, but when they come back home they still consider it their bike… Even though it is just rusty wreckage right now… I morally might be in a dilemma… But legally? I wonder if abandonment comes into play. Anyway, happy to read these comments. Mar 15 at 16:54
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There is an ordinance about abandoned bicycles which defines a derelict bicycle as well as a ghost bike (also "public property"). The key to removing the bicycle is that

In the event that a derelict bicycle is affixed to public property, a notice shall be affixed to the derelict bicycle advising the owner that such derelict bicycle must be removed within seven days from the date of the notice. This notice shall also state that the failure to remove such derelict bicycle within the designated time period will result in the removal and disposal of the derelict bicycle by the department of sanitation.

This ordinance is specifically addressed at the sanitation department. It does include a quasi-exception for ordinary citizens

Nothing in this section shall preclude the immediate removal of any bicycle, including, but not limited to, a derelict bicycle or ghost bike, or the taking of any other action by any city agency if the presence of such bicycle which creates a dangerous condition by restricting vehicular or pedestrian traffic, or otherwise violates the law.

What you should take away from the ordinances is that you are not legally authorized to remove a non-dangerous derelict bicycle.

Supposing that you do take the law into your own hands, this page would be useful to you, because you have to turn in any abandoned property to the proper authorities. The "have to" part comes from this state law: please note that non-compliance is a crime. There is a $20 threshold for the requirement to turn in the property. An abandoned bike may be lost property under the statutory definition of lost property:

Abandoned property, waifs and treasure trove, and other property which is found, shall be presumed to be lost property and such presumption shall be conclusive unless it is established in an action or proceeding commenced within six months after the date of the finding that the property is not lost property

It is thus legally risky to not turn an abandoned bike in to the police. The police would have the discretion to arrest you for theft for vigilante bike-cleanup, although I suspect they have other priorities. Larceny is defined thus:

A person steals property and commits larceny when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner thereof.

This specifically includes "acquiring lost property". So it's not risk-free.

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