Unattended Change and 'Found Money' Theft

Everyone has found some change or a few dollars on the floor of a store. Often, the money was left behind by a previous customer. People generally jump at the chance to snag some free pocket change. Others may donate it back into the spare change receptacle at the checkout lane. But if the amount of money you find is more than a few dollars, do you have a legal responsibility to turn it in?

For example, $3 may not seem so bad, but finding a $5, $10, or $20 bill can start to feel like money someone will be missing — and try to find. In "found money" cases, where do store managers and law enforcement draw the line between “finders keepers" and unlawful theft?

This article explores what happens when people find money or other property. You'll learn about the laws in play, any criminal law concerns, and possible defenses.

Definition of Theft/Larceny

If a person picks up money or other property that does not belong to them, someone may allege theft. A state's theft laws may use the terms theft or larceny to describe the same actions:

  • Taking money or property without the consent of the owner
  • Carrying the money or property away
  • Keeping the money or property permanently

Theft is a criminal offense. It can range from shoplifting to serious crimes like extortion and embezzlement. If you use threats or force to take money from someone, it becomes a robbery.

The person from whom you take the money does not need to be nearby for it to be considered theft. They could have been gone for days, but the money is still theirs in the eyes of the law. So taking any money you find on the ground or at a checkout lane may be construed as theft.

Choosing What to Do After Taking Money

Let's say you pick up money on the floor of a store. You place it in your pocket. Then you hear someone frantically asking about their dropped money. For purposes of illustration, let's say the amount you found is $100. You will generally have three options at this point.

Option 1: Immediately Admit Fault, and Return It

You can walk over, give the money back, and apologize to the person. You can also turn it in to customer service and explain the place and time where you found it. If you go to customer service, they will likely ask your name, make an inventory of the funds, and provide you with a receipt.

This may seem risky. You do not know if the owner will thank you or involve the police. With small amounts of money and a prompt return, most people appreciate that you did the right thing. There's not much likelihood of police involvement. The higher the value of the property and the longer you hold onto it, the more your conduct appears consistent with theft.

Each state's law is different. Some states include language about a finder's rights in this situation. Some states do not. Yet they may rely on common-law principles about lost, mislaid, and abandoned property. Theft crimes require a specific intent to keep the property. Police may also consider charges under laws on unauthorized use of property.

If the rightful owner appears, and you know they are seeking the money, holding onto the cash may show an intent to keep it from the lawful owner. Walking away with the money makes it less likely you will learn the identity of the true owner if you decide to return it later.

In most jurisdictions, there will be a set dollar value that distinguishes petty theft (misdemeanor) from grand theft (felony). In New York and Ohio, for example, any larceny or theft over $1,000 becomes a felony crime. Criminal penalties will change based on whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony as well. A theft of $100 in Ohio is a first-degree misdemeanor offense. Upon conviction, the defendant's sentence can include up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. For a felony, the court can consider a state prison sentence and stiffer fines.

Option 2: Return It, but Talk to an Attorney First

Let's change the facts slightly. You find the $100 in the store, but you do not see anyone come forward. You decide to hold onto the funds and think over whether you will keep it or report it to the store or a law enforcement agency. You decide to consult with an attorney.

Keep in mind that you always have the right to defend yourself against a criminal theft claim. You can choose to leave with the money and immediately talk with an attorney. Until you talk to the attorney, it may be wise not to post on social media about it or talk about the situation with others.

If you are not trying to defraud anyone, your attorney can help ensure the money is returned while also protecting your rights. Hiring an attorney may be expensive for something like finding $100 on the ground. Weigh the pros and cons. Keep in mind that many attorneys offer a free consultation to give you an honest outlook on your case. If you ultimately return the funds to the store, the police, or the rightful owner, chances are good no one will see the matter as a criminal offense. If you do face charges, the attorney can assist you in court.

Option 3: Keep the Money, and Stay Silent

If you leave the store or area with the money and take no other action, you may face accusations of theft. There is a chance no one will notice or care about it. There is also a chance that the owner of the money will return to where they lost the funds. They may ask questions and involve the store manager or police.

Many public places and businesses have cameras everywhere. They may also have plainclothes security in the area. Your course of conduct may be key. In time, they may identify you. A theft charge may come days or even weeks later. The statute of limitations on “petty theft" is often 1-2 years, but you should check your state's specific laws.

If you have been fingerprinted or arrested, or if you used a credit card or debit card in the store, the police may use that to find you. This would normally involve time-stamping the camera footage of you and reviewing the store's transaction systems to trace the corresponding cardholder. They may also check for your name in a police database to take further action. If police arrest you and file criminal charges, you will need to speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

State Laws Related to 'Found Money' or Personal Property

In California, the law provides guidance and consequences for cases of found money. California Penal Code Section 485 says a person who finds "lost property" and fails to attempt to return it to its rightful owner may face theft charges. The statute describes conduct constituting a theft crime as when:

  • A person finds lost money or other personal property, with the knowledge of or means to locate the true owner.
  • The person appropriates the lost property for their own use or someone else's without first making reasonable efforts to return the property to its rightful owner.

The criminal penalties for theft depend on the value and/or type of the property taken. Smaller amounts of money may qualify as a misdemeanor crime with lesser penalties. Larger sums and items like credit cards may lead to felony charges.

The California Civil Code sets forth the duties of a person who finds lost property starting in Section 2080. If the owner is unknown and has not claimed property worth $100 or more, the finder must, in a reasonable time, turn it over to local police. The finder must also complete an affidavit that details:

  • How and where the property was located
  • Whether the finder knows who the rightful owner is
  • That the finder did not tamper with, hide, withhold, or dispose of any part of the property

If the owner never claims the property within 90 days of its deposit with police, the finder may claim the property if its value is under $250. If the owner fails to claim the property after 90 days, and the value is $250 or more, the police must publish a notice in the local newspaper. If there remains no claim after seven more days, the finder may pay the publication costs and obtain title to the property.

Thus, under California law, someone who finds $100 on the ground would need to contact local police. Pursuant to the legal process, they may gain title to the property if the prior owner never comes forward to claim it.

States and political subdivisions such as cities and counties may have different laws on lost and mislaid property. It makes sense to check with a trusted attorney to determine what specific laws might apply to your situation. Your local police department or sheriff may also be able to help.

You should be careful not to engage in any misrepresentation to law enforcement of how you came to find the property. Making false statements to the police itself is a crime. Police may investigate elaborate stories or suspicious schemes to root out any unlawful conduct.

For example, in one Ohio case, the defendant claimed he found $1,124 in a bag on the ground. He notified police, who retrieved and held the funds. The rightful owner contacted police and said some $2,685 was in her backpack, which someone took from her car.

Days later, police arrested the defendant for public intoxication and found more cash on him. They asked him whether he kept some of the "found money" from the other day. He made conflicting statements to two different officers and at trial.

The court convicted the defendant of receiving stolen property. Although he was not charged with theft, the court found his testimony that he did not have reason to believe the money had been stolen lacked credibility. The court concluded that the defendant kept the remaining "lost money," only turning a lesser amount over to the police.

What if the Property Is a Wallet or a Cellphone?

If you find a lost wallet, you likely have more reasons to involve the police promptly. Wallets often contain key pieces of identification and other valuable items, such as:

  • Driver's license or state identity card
  • Credit cards and debit cards
  • ATM and other access device cards
  • The person's Social Security number or other identification number
  • Money

Holding onto a person's wallet, even if the finder wants to try to call the owner directly, can bring unnecessary risk. The finder does not know when the wallet went missing from its owner. If a thief took the wallet, they may have taken items from it already. They may have already engaged in credit card fraud. They may have used an ATM to withdraw the owner's money. Or they could have used personally identifying information to get into the owner's account at a financial institution.

Keeping the wallet for any significant period of time may lead law enforcement to suspect the finder of criminal activity. State and federal law both prohibit identity theft. Many state laws on theft and receiving stolen property treat credit and debit cards as items that elevate charges to the felony level.

Like a large sum of money, people don't intentionally abandon their cellphones. Telecommunication devices — whether phones, tablets, or other internet-cable items — can be expensive to replace. These devices may also have "find my phone" tracking capabilities. And their serial numbers can be traced if someone tries to resell them.

Taking a lost smartphone as "found property" may get you in trouble. The owner will probably come looking for it. If you find a phone on a business property, it's best to provide it to management.

Common-Law Distinctions Among Lost, Mislaid, and Abandoned Property

For states that do not have specific laws on "lost property," the outcome may turn on interpretations of the common law. Under common law, the so-called finders keepers rule only applies to abandoned property. Where the evidence suggests the owner abandoned the property, they no longer claim any right to it. Items that a person places out for trash pickup or discards on the side of the road would fit this description.

"Lost property" refers to items that may have been dropped (like money in a store) or left in a location that the owner visited. For these items, as under California law, the finder becomes a bailee. This means they have a duty to hold onto the property and make reasonable efforts to find the true owner. The finder has the best claim to title absent the appearance of the true owner.

Courts define "mislaid property" as personal property left somewhere to which they might be expected to return and retrieve the item. With mislaid property, the owner of the real property where the item is found has a duty to keep the item and look for its owner. If the site's owner does not succeed in finding the mislaid property's owner, they have first claim to title.

Finally, common law supports the concept of "treasure trove." This is property that was intentionally laid in a specific location so long ago that the true owner would likely be dead. "Treasure trove" normally refers to gold, silver, or cash. Under English common law, the owner of the real estate with the trove has the superior claim. Yet several American court cases in the 20th century held that the finder had first claim to the trove.

Today, U.S. federal law governs the excavation of archaeological sites on federal government and Native American lands. A treasure trove found on government property will not likely stay with the finder. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 prohibits removal of historical items — i.e., items at least 100 years old — without a government permit. A violation can lead to fines that range from $10,000 to $100,000 and one to five years in prison based on the value of items removed and any prior conviction history.

Defenses for Keeping 'Found Money'

Someone accused of theft of found money or property could take many defense strategies. Here are a few examples:

  • No intent to keep permanently: You picked up the money or item for safekeeping with the intent to report the finding and attempt to return it to the true owner.
  • Mistake of fact: You mistakenly believed the money or item belonged to you. You retrieved your own money or item. If later proven incorrect, you return the money to the rightful owner.
  • You made reasonable efforts to locate the owner: Although you were unsuccessful, you made reasonable efforts to locate the owner. You waited until the police or store manager told you to retrieve the property.
  • Duress: You admit the theft. You state that a third party made you take the item by threat of force. This is an affirmative defense, which means that the defendant must prove the claim by a preponderance of the evidence.
  • Necessity: You admit the theft. You state you acted out of necessity. For example, you were having a diabetic episode and stole candy from the checkout aisle and ran outside to sit down. This also is an affirmative defense.

What Happens When the Government Finds Money or Property?

When the government is the finder of the property, different rules may apply. Most often, the government becomes the "finder" of property in cases of civil and criminal forfeiture. In these cases, the government may claim the property in the absence of any superior legal claim by an individual.

Civil forfeiture may occur in the absence of any criminal case. The federal civil forfeiture statute (18 U.S.C. Section 981) permits the federal government to pursue a civil action against personal or real property (including money) that may relate to illegal activities but not any named defendant. At the federal level, the attorney general has the authority to seize the property and hold it until a court issues a final decision. Often, the forfeiture relates to banking fraud, embezzlement, or motor vehicle crimes.

The government can also bring criminal forfeiture actions. These actions correlate to criminal cases against individual defendants. The property subject to forfeiture must relate to the crimes charged. To uphold the seizure of property, the government must obtain a criminal conviction. Criminal forfeiture cases often involve illegal controlled substances, firearms, and cash from illegal transactions. Law enforcement may seize these items from criminal defendants at their arrest or during a valid search.

Know Your Options if You Find Money

What you should do when you pick up "found money" may vary based on the circumstances and the law of the state where you find it. In situations where an owner may appear and look for the money, the best course of action may be to report it and turn over the funds to the store or the police.

To protect yourself, you can speak with an attorney and get their advice on the law and appropriate next steps. They can also discuss possible outcomes, penalties, or risks associated with keeping the money.

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