Suppose one finds an item on the street that seems to have been lost by someone. What are examples of reasonable steps one could take to attempt to contact the item's rightful owner before concluding that it may in fact not be possible to do so? Once one has reasonably reached this conclusion, is one then legally entitled to keep the property for one's self?
What are reasonable steps to ascertain or contact lost property's owner to avoid liability for theft by finding?
Following the guidance of the police
- If the item is hazardous or dangerous you should report it to the police using the emergency number.
- If the item is non-hazardous and found in a private place, hand it to the owner of the premises - it's their responsibility to attempt to find the owner and the property becomes theirs if they can't.
- If the item is non-hazardous and found on public transport, hand it to the operator - they have their own by-laws about lost property.
- If the item is non-hazardous and found in a public place,
- if it has a serial number, hand it to the police - they may be able to trace the owner
- if it is a government document, hand it to the issuer
- if it is of low value, make reasonable efforts to find the owner "these could include asking people nearby or in offices or shops. You could also consider leaving a note with your details. If you can't find the owner there's nothing more we can do and you should dispose of the item."
- if it is of high value, make reasonable efforts to find the owner and if you can't hand it to the police.
I love how there is specific guidance for "government documents" lost in a public place!– SteveMar 28 at 23:36
Depending on the laws of your state and local city & county regulations, it otherwise boils down to being a matter of Civil Code and will vary depending where you live. But, for example Section 2080 of the California Civil Code more or less says you're not required to take responsibility for it (but by taking it, you are in some extent taking responsibility of it) whereas you could have just left it right where you found it so that if the person returned, they would find whatever it is they lost.
What are examples of reasonable steps one could take to attempt to contact the item's rightful owner before concluding that it may in fact not be possible to do so?
It depends on what was found, such as if it was something containing a unique serial number, IMEI # (in the case of a phone) or otherwise has a form of being identified as uniquely belonging to a particular person and registered to that person through a service provider or retail seller in the case of high end electronics as opposed to a general item like a Twenty dollar bill then "reasonable" steps would be very limited. But, in either case, "reasonable" is subjective and again, responsibility to find the owner only falls on you if you choose to take charge of it (pick it up and remove it from where it was found). But in either case, what you've done as reasonable may include
- Posting a lost & found sign around the area it was found such as you might see with a lost & found pet sign, providing limited details for the person to know you have it and how they can contact you but will need to be vague enough so that the true owner can provide a specific detail to that only the owner would know about it, to prevent false claims of ownership
- Posting about a found item online in the local community pages of places like Facebook Marketplace, craigslist etc. or you could try searching for posts of someone mentioning the lost item, and asking when they lost it to see if it coincides with around the time u found it or asking where they think might've lost it. It's hard to provide examples when the subject of what was found is so broad.
- As reference, the police department, depending on the value, may takes steps such as trying to notify the owner or otherwise would even wait long enough to publish an item being found in the newspaper if the value of the item is high enough.
Seeing as how broadly stated the question is, if it's something of high value, it's better to check your city's & county's policy on the matter because most likely you'll be expected to turn it in.
Once one has reasonably reached this conclusion, is one then legally entitled to keep the property for one's self?
In the case of California, CIV Section 2080.1 says that if the item is worth $100 or more, you're expected to turn the item into the police department or sheriff's department of the county if outside of city limits and file an affidavit (make a statement) about where, when, and how you found the item.
If it's under $100, then there's no stipulation that says you couldn't keep the item per se but in terms of specifically "legally entitled to keep the property" when it's valued over $100 then the answer is, no, you're not "entitled" to keeping it based on your own conclusions but yes after the local authorities have taken a chance at trying to return the item.
What I mean is that you have to first turn it in to police or sheriff's department as aforementioned, then in terms of what happens next, if it's value is over $250 then it's only after the 90 days of a waiting period and 7 days of another waiting period after the published in the newspaper about it will then, only then will the finder have the opportunity to claim it (or be given title of the property) for themselves, assuming it wasn't found during the course of employment (where a customer left it at your work and didn't come back for it), and requires even the finder to pay the cost of publication back to the city before being able to get it back from the police. Under that same provision, (CA CIV 2080.3), it also mentions that if it's under $250, then the finder will have the opportunity to take title of the item after just the 90 days without having to wait for an additional 7 days for the newspaper print notices and since there's no newspaper publish, you don't have to pay for the city back for that cost before being able to claiming your title of it.
So legally speaking, you can't take ownership until you've turned it in to local authorities to give them a chance to try finding and contacting the owner and means you can't technically "just keep it" to be legally entitled to it
- It's mostly a safer bet to turn it in and then wait the 90 days because then, if hypothetically you just kept it without turning it in, and that person somehow (depending on the item) discovers you have it, or reports the item as lost and you're somehow found with it later, although it's not a likely scenario, by finding you with the item and having not reported it, will make it appear as if you stole it and harder to claim it as being found.
- The answer is based on California state laws and does not include consideration for county and city laws who have the ability of setting different limitations.
- As noted for example, in the County of Orange the other stipulations not included part of California state Civil Code:
For Sections 2080.3(a) and 2080.3(b) to be applicable and for title to be vested in the person who found or saved the property, he or she must sign the affidavit on the back of the Found Property Report Form when the deputy takes possession of the property. Refusal to sign the affidavit at the time the property is turned over to the Sheriff's Department shall be deemed the intention of the finder to abandon title to the found property when such title should vest to the finder.
If no owner appears to prove his ownership of the property and the finder fails to claim the property within 23 days after the 97 day holding period (value $250 or over) or within 30 days after the 90 day holding period (value under $250), or the finder refuses to pay all reasonable charges, then title to the property shall not vest in the finder and the property shall be processed as unclaimed property.
If you worry about this, the first step would be that you can ignore the item. It is entirely legal to completely ignore an item that you believe may be lost.
Obvious steps would be examining the item. For example, there is a debit card in my wallet. If you don't find me, then I'd hope that any court would convict you. You could have just called the bank (their number is on the card) and talked to them. Is that inconvenient? A bit, but you could have left my wallet where it is.
Another very obvious step would be to ask the police what to do.
The exact rules are different per country. For example, if you find my wallet on a train in Germany and don't find me, you are guilty of theft. That's because items on a train (or on anyone's property, like an airport, library, someone's home) is legally in the possession of the ones responsible for the property, like the train operator, and taking it away is theft.
The Theft Act 1968 (see also the prosecution manual) says:
- Theft is the dishonest appropriation of "property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it".
- Appropriation is not regarded as dishonest if the appropriator "appropriates the property in the belief that the person to whom the property belongs cannot be discovered by taking reasonable steps".
This leaves two paths open to avoid a "theft by finding" charge.
- If common-law property rules have made this abandonned property. Then it is not "property belonging to another". I know you're not asking about this path, but look up the law of finders: Parker v British Airways Board,  1 QB 1004; etc.
- If the appropriator believes there's no way to discover the owner by taking reasonable steps. Sometimes this belief can only be reasonably formed after attempting and failing at various reasonable steps.
In assessing dishonesty, and as part of that, whether the "reasonable steps" exception applies, the judge (or jury) must answer:
- What was the defendant’s actual state of knowledge or belief as to the facts?
- Was the defendant’s conduct dishonest by the standards of ordinary decent people?
One example of a reasonable step is handing the property to the owner of the venue where the property was found and thereby placing the responsibility on them for attempting to return it. Many other examples are in the other answers to this question. The question of what is reasonable is determined by the objective standard of what ordinary and decent people should do.