Finders keepers – what should you do if you find a large amount of money?

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The ‘finders keepers’ rule may have been popular in primary school but does this translate into a rock-solid legal defence? Unfortunately not. If you find a large amount of money or other valuable property, simply keeping it could land you in a lot of trouble.

Just ask Sydneysider Alfred Boyagdis, a 22 year old design student who found a bag containing over $11,000 cash at a local McDonalds at the end of a night out with friends.

He grabbed the bag and quickly left the restaurant.

Boyagdis decided to keep the money instead of handing it in or trying to find the owner, even though the bag containing the money also held a drivers licence, a Medicare card and an iPhone.

Police tracked Boyagdis down using video footage and his keycard transactions.

In court, he pleaded guilty to the charges of larceny.

The judge didn’t go easy on him, even though Boyagdis claimed that he didn’t think of it as stealing, and eventually handed the money over to police.

On appeal in the District court, the judge found that he had committed deliberate theft.

Boyagdis ended up with a criminal record and 12 month good behaviour bond.

Finding money and keeping it without attempting to find the owner is theft, or larceny.

In New South Wales it is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment, home detention, community service and good behaviour bonds. Offenders may also have to make reparations to the victim.

For theft by finding to be proved, the prosecution must negate the following:

  • the goods were abandoned;
  • and that the accused did not believe that the owner could be found.

If the person accused of the crime honestly believed that the property was abandoned or that the owner cannot be found, they are not guilty.

It has long since been the law that people who come across lost property cannot keep it for themselves without first trying to find the owner.

This applies even if the owner of the money may not be aware of it – a couple in Melbourne bought a second hand suitcase that had been donated to the Salvation Army and later discovered over $100,000 in the lining.

They were apprehended by the police and had to give the money back.

Even if money is found without any clues as to ownership, you cannot simply keep it.

To be allowed to keep it under the ‘finders keepers’ rule you must make reasonable inquiries to find the owner, or turn it in to the police.

If you hand the money in, and the real owner never comes forward, you may even be allowed to keep it.

If you think that handing in a large amount of cash is unlikely to be left unclaimed, think again.

In cases involving large amounts of cash, where the money may be the proceeds of crime, the real owner may have good reason not to step forward and claim the money.

Interestingly enough, the ‘finders keepers’ adage does have a historical basis. Stretching back centuries, the English and Australian courts have been enforcing the rights of finders.

A landmark case (and heart-warming story) involves a poor little chimney sweep’s boy in the eighteenth century. After finding a piece of jewellery and taking it to a goldsmith for valuation, the jeweller attempted to pay the boy off with a measly three halfpence.

In court, the judge awarded the jewellery to the boy, with the explanation that while the boy did not have a claim of absolute ownership, his claim was better than everyone else except for that of the true owner (who was at the time, unidentified).

Numerous court cases since have affirmed the rights that finders have in relation to lost property. There are of course, limitations – you cannot have been trespassing when you found the property, been acting dishonestly, or have found it in a place considered private property.

So while finders keepers does have a somewhat legal basis, it is not going to work if you quietly pocket any six-figure cash amounts you come across.

While the chance of finding a suitcase or wallet containing hundreds of thousands of dollars, or any other form of expensive property may not be likely, remember that this applies to smaller amounts, too.

Finding a small amount like $10 would not require anything more than checking if it belonged to anyone in the vicinity, but items of value should be handed in to police.

And the key thing to remember is that the ‘finders keepers’ rights only arise when the true owner cannot be found – simply keeping the found item is against the law, and as Mr. Boyagdis found out, can be very costly.

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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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