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Abdul’s news and wine gets a delivery of the next day’s papers overnight and he then puts the stack of unsold papers out on the pavement before closing for the publisher to collect and then destroy. When the papers are current, they are sold for £3 each, while they cost the publisher £0.05 to print.

Bob is walking home down the street from work one night and spots such a stack of unsold papers lying on the pavement. He thinks he’d like to read a bit of news, and so helps himself to one of the unsold papers, which he simultaneously rescues from vain destruction.

I presume that Bob will have committed a theft, but is this correct? Whom will he have stolen the papers from? And, what may be deemed the value of his grand theft? (£3.0, £0.05, or somewhere in between?)

2 Answers 2

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Paper put out for waste collection is owned by the waste disposal service

Abdul's News & Wine contracts with the city's waste disposal company. Under that contract, he may give his waste to the collection and they get the fee for collecting. Because the waste disposal company has a property interest in the paper (to sell it to a paper mill), there is a transfer of ownership: the moment the store puts the paper out for collection, the company is transferring its property interest in the papers to the waste disposal company.

The value of the discarded is not the £3 sales value, it is not the £0.05 printing costs. Earlier, when the store owned it, it was worth (to the store) the roughly £2.50 that the shop paid to the printer to get the newspaper. Yes, the margin for newspapers is "only" about 15-20% for most normal newspapers.

But for the waste company the value is vastly lower: Waste paper trades for about £150 per metric ton while fresh newspaper paper costs up to 4 digits per ton.

The party that was stolen from - if it was the waste disposal company - lost virtually the value of a peppercorn. Which is a value greater than 0. As such, technically it could be theft.

Now, it is clear:

  • The damaged party is the waste disposal company
  • The newspaper is taken to deprive the waste disposal company of it
  • The value of the taken item is about "one peppercorn".

There are two problems to following up on it legally:

  • The recourse is in no means proportional to the work put into the case - it's not worth it. In most countries, the de minimus value would prevent the prosecution from prosecuting.
  • If Bob just reads the news and puts it into his own paper bin later, he doesn't even permanently deprive the waste disposal company of the value they own. In that case, theft would be off the table.

But papers unsold by shops are returned to the printer for full price under Sale or Return schemes

Each morning a truck passes by my house delivering newspapers to the shops. The very same truck also picks up unsold papers. Those unsold papers are gathered by the newspaper and brought to pulping in tons. The only way that the news printers manage to get people to agree to sell their news at such a low markup is a simple fact:

Returned newspapers are worth their acquisition price

This pattern can give rise to damages of the sales price to the shop by the way: if Abdul's News & Wine just put the unsold papers out to have his next issues dropped off by the news printer, then that is a vastly different ownership setup for the papers:

The newspaper was sold to Abdul's News & Wine with a provision that he could return any unsold newspapers for the very same price he paid the next day, if unsold. As such, the missing newspaper would cost Abdul's News & Wine about £2.50, as those are now on his bill to the printer. That is much more than the peppercorn. Now we have a perfect case of theft:

Conclusion

Not only does the newspaper not get returned to the printer, but Abdul's News & Wine is damaged if the newspaper is not put back onto the stack. There is a permanent deprivation of £2.50 per missing newspaper to Abdul's News & Wine, and further conversion of the £0.50 the shop lost in earnings from selling it. The shop could sue Bob if they manage to find him. The only problem to prosecution would be de minimus value of a single newspaper, but if Bob stole one each day or a stack, then that would be no problem either.

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    My understanding has always been that they get sent back to the publishers, not the waste disposal company. Jan 5 at 0:37
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    @TylerDurden the overwhelming number are picked up, but a couple "handout" gazettes (mostly: advertizement leaflets) are thrown out, but they also do not get sold by the shops but handed out free.
    – Trish
    Jan 5 at 1:48
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    @Stef They might require the cover page to be handed back for accounting of the refund amount.
    – Trish
    Jan 5 at 11:18
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    A term that might be of interest is Sale or Reurn, which applies more broadly. Newspapers (especially old ones) are low enough in value that they're left unattended and obvious, but otherwise the process is nothing special
    – Chris H
    Jan 5 at 11:21
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    @Nimloth: The fact that somebody else's property is unmarked does not entitle random people to steal it. You can't just go around taking things that don't belong to you.
    – Kevin
    Jan 5 at 21:25
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Theft requires intention, so whether Bob has committed theft will turn on the details. Honest belief that property has been abandoned is a defence against theft.

Your case is superficially close to Williams v Phillips (1957) 41 Cr App R 5 where rubbish was left for collection by the local authority refuse workers. The Divisional Court held that such refuse remained the householder's property until collected. Hence, refuse workers helping themselves to such property are guilty of theft, on the basis that the property never became ownerless. From the judgment:

The first point that is taken here, that the property was abandoned, is on the face of it untenable. Of course, that is not so. If I put refuse in my dustbin outside my house, I am not abandoning it in the sense that I am leaving it for anybody to take away. I am putting it out so that it may be collected and taken away by the local authority, and until it has been taken away by the local authority it is my property. It is my property and I can take it back and prevent anybody else from taking it away. It is simply put there for the Corporation [the employer of the dustmen] or the local authority, as the case may be, to come and clear it away. Once the Corporation come and clear it away, it seems to me that because I intended it to pass from myself to them, it becomes their property. Therefore, there is no ground for saying that this is abandoned property. As long as the property remains on the owner’s premises, it cannot be abandoned property. It is a wholly untenable proposition to say that refuse which a house holder puts out to taken away is abandoned. Very likely he does not want it himself and that is why he puts it in the dustbin. He puts it in the dustbin, not so that anybody can come along and take it, but so that the Corporation can come along and take it.

However, it must be noted that that case involved workers taking rubbish they were tasked with collecting, not with a passerby helping themselves before the refuse was collected. My read of this case is that the remarks above were coloured by this context, and would not vitiate a defence of abandonment in your case, as later case law demonstrates.

Honest belief that property has been abandoned is a defence against theft. In R v (Adrian) Small [1987] Crim LR 778, a conviction of theft of a car was quashed, as the accused believed the owner of a car that had been left for over a week with the keys in the ignition had abandoned the car. Importantly, the Court of Appeal found the requisite belief is subjective and does not need to be objectively reasonable. In your case, Bob could be accused of theft but a defence of abandonment is likely to succeed unless other facts could be proved, such as:

  1. Bob was an employee or former employee of Abdul's or the publisher and knew of the arrangement with the publisher.

  2. The newspapers were presented on the pavement in such a way that would make a claim of honest belief of abandonment improbable. For example, if the papers were tied up with string, or had a note saying 'for collection' secured on top.(If the papers were placed with just a rock on top, abandonment would be likely to be an honest belief, as Bob may think the rock was there to avoid the abandoned property becoming litter, though interestingly one could argue that taking the rock would be theft, since it's serving a purpose as a paperweight.)

  3. Bob had been asked to return the paper by either Abdul or the publisher after taking them.

Even if it was widely known among newspaper agents that papers left outside after the day's trading were part of a commercial arrangement with the publisher, as long as this was not known to Bob, the defence succeeds.

In my view, the judgment of Williams vs Phillips has a too narrow definition of abandonment. Rubbish left out for collection in the ordinary course of events is abandoned property. The fact that the owner expects the refuse to be collected by an entity is not the same as intending to transfer ownership to that entity, nor as retaining ownership until that point. If the owner is indifferent about how the rubbish is disposed of, then the rubbish is abandoned.

US and Canadian law seems to endorse this view. As Saw Cheng Lim in "The law of abandonment and the passing of property in trash" notes:

From a brief survey of US and Canadian case law, it is apparent that two requirements must be satisfied in order to effect a proper abandonment of property. … There must therefore be, in addition to the overt act of abandonment itself, a specific intention/motive on the part of the original owner to completely relinquish all rights of ownership – voluntarily and, more importantly, without regard as to who may subsequently take possession of the property. It bears repeating that such relinquishment must be to the extent where the former owner is completely indifferent as to the fate of the discarded object (ie, as to what/who may await the abandoned property).

Thus, if rubbish is left out with the expectation that it will be collected, but the owner is actually indifferent about who collects it, then the rubbish is abandoned, contra Williams. Furthermore, R v (Adrian) Small suggests that even if the owner is not so indifferent because of an arrangement he has with the publisher, a passerby of the evening who sees that morning's papers left on the pavement would be entitled to claim abandonment and it would be up to the prosecution to prove that that belief was not honestly held. If Bob "rescues from vain destruction" the paper, he would not be guilty of theft.

See also Can There Be Theft Of A Discarded Item (2021) by Benny Tan Zhi Peng, regarding Parti Liyani v Public Prosecutor [2020] SGHC 187.

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    Would this answer be clearer if it had one or more jurisdiction tags added to it? The citations don't seem to all be relevant to England and Wales, which is the jurisdiction tagged to the question. The last citation seems to be Singapore case law. Jan 6 at 21:52

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