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Stealing by Finding in Tasmania

Most people have heard the saying “finders keepers, losers weepers”. This phrase refers to someone asserting ownership over an unclaimed object. What is less well known is that in most places, this approach is inconsistent with the law. In Tasmania, a person cannot legally assert ownership over an item merely because they discovered the item. Stealing by finding in Tasmania is an offence under the Criminal Code Act 1924 and the Police Offences Act 1935. Under these laws, it is prohibited for someone to keep an item without taking reasonable steps to return it to the true owner. This article explains “finders keepers” law in Tasmania.

History Of Finders Keepers Law

Variations of the finders keepers principle stretch back to ancient Rome, but the more familiar legal concept has its origin in eighteenth-century England. English common law, such as the case of Armory v Delamirie [1722], informed Australian finders keepers law. In this case, a chimney sweep found a jewelled ring and took it to a goldsmith for appraisal. Before returning the ring, the apprentice goldsmith removed the valuable stone. The chimney sweep took legal action to retrieve the jewel. The Court of King’s Bench decided that the chimney sweep had a higher claim to the ring than anyone else apart from the true owner. The Chief Justice instructed the jury to assume that the gem had a high value and make a judgment against the goldsmith accordingly.

This case established the principle that a finder has the best claim over the object unless the original owner claims the item. This is based on the policy that property cannot be considered to be abandoned unless the true owner has been given an opportunity to reclaim their property. When a person finds an item of value, they must make some attempt to track down the owner of the property or turn it in to the police. It is only when the owner fails to appear that the finder can claim the item.

Surrendering Found Property

When found property is brought to a police station, the police officer in charge must record the item with a description and the name and address of the finder. If the police can readily identify the owner, they will immediately contact them. For instance, if someone turns in a wallet containing a driver’s licence, it should be a straightforward process to return it to the owner. A person who can prove that they are the owner of the item may take receipt of the property. A judge dealing with a matter involving stolen property may direct the rightful owner to refund any reasonable expenses incurred while locating the property. The justice may direct that the item be destroyed if the property is perishable or likely to become offensive, toxic or valueless.

When no claim has been established against the found property in the three months after the item was surrendered to the police, the finder may take possession if they apply in the next month and satisfy the authorities that it was not found unlawfully. This is only allowed when the item does not contain personal information (such as a phone or wallet), and the property itself is not illegal to own. Otherwise, if the finder does not apply for possession, the justice may direct that the property is sold or disposed of, with proceeds paid into the Public Account.

Stealing by finding is a dishonesty offence

If a person fails to turn in found property, they are guilty of a criminal offence. Stealing by finding in Tasmania is an offence of dishonesty. Section 43 of the Criminal Code Act mandates that a person who finds and takes possession of goods, money, or chattels must deliver the item to a neighbouring police station within seven days. Alternatively, if the finder knows the owner’s identity, they can restore the item to the true owner within the same period of time.

A person who contravenes section 43 is guilty of a criminal offence and liable on summary conviction to a punishment of one penalty unit. It is an additional offence for a person to use or dispose of a found item of value. On summary conviction, the penalty for this offence is a maximum of two penalty units. The court may order that a person convicted of this offence pay the owner a sum commensurate with the value of the property (not exceeding $1,000), recoverable as part of the penalty.

Finder’s law concerns personal property rights. Unless property is stolen, a person owns the property they possess. The situation is more complicated when it comes to lost and abandoned property. All members of the Tasmanian public need to be aware that they have a legal obligation to return a lost item. Please call 1300 636 846 or contact Go To Court Lawyers if you need criminal law advice or representation on a stealing by finding offence.


Nicola Bowes

Dr Nicola Bowes holds a Bachelor of Arts with first-class honours from the University of Tasmania, a Bachelor of Laws with first-class honours from the Queensland University of Technology, and a PhD from The University of Queensland. After a decade of working in higher education, Nicola joined Go To Court Lawyers in 2020.

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