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Theft of Property Mislaid, Lost, or Delivered by Mistake

Have you ever found a wallet on the ground with cash inside and were tempted to keep it? Or perhaps you received a package delivered to you by mistake that contained an expensive gadget? While it may be tempting to keep found property or items delivered to you erroneously, doing so could constitute theft under the law. Let’s break down what constitutes theft in these situations and what defenses you may have if accused.

What is Considered Theft of Mislaid or Lost Property?

If you find an item that someone else lost or mislaid, keeping that item can be considered larceny or theft in most states. The logic is that the original owner did not intend to give up ownership or possession of the property, so keeping it equates to stealing it.

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For example, if you find a wallet on the ground with credit cards and cash inside, pocketing the cash could be considered theft. Even if you plan to use the ID in the wallet to return it to the owner, keeping the cash is still theft since the original owner did not intend to give you the money.

What About Items Delivered to You By Mistake?

Sometimes you may receive a package or other item delivered to you erroneously. For instance, Amazon may deliver a laptop to your doorstep that was intended for your neighbor. Even though this was delivered to you by mistake, keeping it could still be considered theft.

The reason is that the sender did not intend to transfer ownership of the item to you, so keeping it is essentially stealing it from the rightful owner. This applies even if the item was shipped directly to your address – it was still a mistake and not meant as a gift for you to keep.

What Defenses Exist Against Theft Charges?

If you are accused of theft for keeping lost, mislaid, or erroneously delivered property, you may have certain defenses to fight the charges:

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  • Lack of intent – If you truly did not realize the property belonged to someone else and assumed it was a gift or unclaimed item, you may argue you lacked intent to deprive the owner. However, once you realize it is not yours, you must make efforts to return it.
  • Efforts to find owner – If you made reasonable, good faith efforts to find the rightful owner and return the property, this can show you did not intend to steal it. For example, turning a found wallet into the police demonstrates intent to give it back.
  • Reasonable time to return item – The law recognizes you should have a reasonable time period to return a lost or misdelivered item. For instance, expecting you to return a package delivered mistakenly the same day may be unreasonable. As long as you make efforts to return it within a reasonable timeframe, you have a defense.
  • Police refused to take item – If you found a lost item and attempted to turn it into the police but they refused to take it, you have a defense against theft accusations if you then kept it. This shows you made efforts to return it that were rebuffed.
  • Reward expectation – If an item has a posted reward (like a lost pet), keeping it with the expectation the owner will offer a reward when reunited can serve as a defense against theft. You can argue you intended to return it for the reward, not steal it.

What About Finders Keepers?

The idea of “finders keepers” when you find lost or mislaid property is generally not a valid legal defense. The original owner does not lose rights just because they lost possession of the item. Even if you found a winning lottery ticket that someone dropped, keeping it would still legally be considered theft.

The only time finders keepers would apply is when property is truly unclaimed and abandoned altogether by the original owner. If that cannot be proven, you do not have a right to keep found or mistakenly delivered property that belongs to someone else.

When is it Yours to Keep?

Generally, the only time you can legally keep lost, mislaid or erroneously delivered property is if reasonable efforts to find the owner fail. This means:

  • Turning in found items to the police
  • Contacting the sender or merchant in cases of mistaken delivery
  • Holding items for a reasonable period of time before claiming them

If the original owner cannot be located after diligent efforts, in some states the property legally becomes yours to keep. However, the original owner could still come forward later and have a valid claim to get the item back. So even keeping unclaimed property has risks.

The Bottom Line

While the idea of “finders keepers” may seem reasonable, the legal reality is that keeping lost, mislaid or mistakenly delivered property can constitute theft. Your best bet is to make diligent, good faith efforts to return found items or property delivered to you erroneously. Document these efforts, and only keep items if all else fails and the owner cannot be located. But understand you still risk the original owner coming forward later with a valid claim. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of returning property to its rightful owner.

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