Finders Keepers in Law – Can I Be Charged With Theft?

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Money in suitcase

Finding something valuable like a sum of money is exciting, but as tempting as it might be, keeping it without taking adequate steps to locate the owner could leave you facing criminal charges.

Although many people argue that there should be a finders keepers law, being entitled to keep something you find isn’t supported by the law in NSW.

Larceny by finding is a criminal offence, which comes with harsh penalties if you are found guilty.

Can you be prosecuted for theft by finding?

There have been a number of different cases where people have been charged with larceny after finding and keeping money or other items of value.

In 2010, a couple in Melbourne were charged with larceny by finding after they bought a second-hand suitcase from a Salvation Army shop and found $100,000 in cash stuffed inside.

After they found the money, they made no attempts to return it or to find the rightful owners, and tried to hide the cash in numerous bank accounts.

They were eventually traced through the eftpos records from the sale and had to return the money.

If police can prove that you appropriated property that wasn’t your own with the intentions of permanently depriving the owner, you can potentially be charged with theft by finding.

Even taking the property with the intention to return it later may not be a valid defence. If you find valuable property or cash, you will need to prove that you took reasonable measures to find and return the property to its rightful owner in order to be sure that you won’t end up facing charges.

Most charges of theft by finding relate to larger sums of money or property of value, such as jewellery. It is unlikely that you will end up in court for finding $20 on the ground and keeping it.

What are reasonable measures?

Some examples of what are considered to be reasonable measures to find the owner include handing the property in to a police station, trying to contact the owner directly in the case of a lost wallet or phone, or making any other attempt to locate the owner via a third party or directly.

Much of what can be considered reasonable measures depends on the nature of the property and the circumstances under which it was found.

If you find a wallet in a restaurant, asking restaurant staff or handing them the wallet can be considered reasonable measures.

In the case of the Melbourne couple with the $100,000 cash in the suitcase, notifying the store that they had bought the case from and trying to locate the owners through them could have been considered reasonable measures.

If you find $20 on the ground in the street and nobody else is around generally it would not be expected that you take measures to find the owner.

If, however, you notice someone dropping it and pick up the money and keep it, theoretically this could be considered an offence.

What are the defences to a larceny by finding charge?

If you are facing charges of theft by finding, it’s a good idea to seek legal advice as soon as possible.

There are a number of possible defences depending on the circumstances, and an experienced criminal lawyer will be able to discuss your options with you so you can make a decision on how to proceed.

To convict someone for theft by finding, the prosecution needs to prove a number of things, mainly that you appropriated the property in question, that you intended to permanently deprive the owner of their property, and that you had no lawful right to the property.

If you can raise reasonable doubt for any of those factors, you may be able to avoid being convicted.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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