What does the law say about ownership of lost items? Can you simply keep anything you find or are you required to look for its owner? More importantly, could the ‘finders keepers’ principle get you into trouble with the law? Keep reading to find out what the law has to say about the offence of stealing by finding.
Can you ever keep property that you find?
It is not always illegal to keep property you’ve found – and in fact, the law in certain circumstances gives the finder certain rights over the found property. The finder of an item will have the best claim of right over it unless the original owner comes back on the scene.
This situation was considered by English courts all the way back in 1722 and Australian law still draws its principles from this case. In this case, a poor chimney sweep called Armory happened to find a ring containing a jewel. He took it to a goldsmith to have it weighed. Unfortunately for Armory, the underhanded apprentice removed the valuable stone and returned Armory only the empty setting, telling him it was worth three halfpence.
Armory took the matter to court, wanting the jewel back. The court decided that Armory had a better claim of right to the ring than anyone else except for the true owner, if they were ever found. The Chief Justice told the jury that if the apprentice didn’t produce the real gem, the jury should assume the gem to have been of the very highest quality when determining the amount the apprentice would have to pay Armory, which the jury did. You can read the full judgment here.
When is it illegal to keep something I find?
While the story had a happy ending for Armory, this doesn’t mean that every instance of stealing by finding will end just as well. Simply pocketing sums of cash or other property you find could be against the law and you could end up in court charged with a criminal offence.
When you find an item of value, the law expects you to make some attempts to find the owner of the property (or hand it in to police) before deciding to keep it for yourself. If the owner doesn’t show up, you may be able to claim back the property.
It was reported recently that a NSW resident woke up one day to find a gold bullion worth over $20,000 in her backyard. After looking online and finding out the true value, the woman contacted police who looked for the owner. Police in this case indicated that if the true owner couldn’t be tracked down in six weeks the gold bullion could be returned to the finder.
In another situation, a Victorian couple faced criminal charges after they found $100,000 inside the lining of a suitcase they bought from a Salvation Army Store and kept the money. The woman who donated the suitcase to the store had no idea her husband had previously hidden the large sum of money in there. When her husband found out, he contacted the store to try and retrieve the money but was told the suitcase was no longer there. The husband went to the police, who tracked down the purchasers of the suitcase. The couple was charged with stealing by finding after police found out that they had deposited the money into a number of different bank accounts.
What if I get charged with stealing by finding?
Larceny by finding is covered by section 117 of the Crimes Act 1900. The maximum penalty for this offence is five years imprisonment if dealt with in the District Court, and two years imprisonment if dealt with in the Local Court. This offence will almost always be dealt with in the Local Court. If a person is found guilty of stealing by finding, the court can impose a range of other penalties including dismissing the charge with no other penalty (section 10(1)(a) dismissal), placing you on a Conditional Release Order (CRO) with or without a conviction, convicting you but not imposing any other penalty (s10A), fining you, or placing you on a Community Corrections Order or an Intensive Corrections Order.
The penalty you receive will depend on a number of circumstances including the value of the item or money taken, other circumstances around the offence, your criminal record and whether or not you pleaded guilty. If you are facing a charge in relation to this offence it is important to obtain legal advice before you enter a plea. A criminal lawyer will be able to advise you on aspects of the law relevant to your case, including whether you may have a defence, or fight for you to get the best possible outcome if you plead guilty.
If you require legal advice or representation in relation to stealing by finding or in any legal matter, please contact Go To Court Lawyers.