TDNCLA: How True is Finders Keepers?

February 22, 2013


I’m a straight-up kleptomaniac but I’m thinking I may have found a solution. I’ve become really good at “finding” things recently, like that time I found a wallet in my best friend’s pocket and that time I found $500 in my boyfriend’s sock that he keeps buried in his kitchen drawer. I’m thinking I don’t need to go see a therapist anymore and can just stick to my good fortune as a finder. Do you agree?


Dear Klepto-in-Recovery,

Finders keepers, losers weepers is more than just a children’s taunt like “na-na-na-na-poo-poo,” and “yo’ momma’s so fat”–it’s the law!  Yes, dating back to the time when valuable possessions in life were fox carcasses (true–some law school classes devote a lot of time to the property rights of two hunters who found a dead fox in the woods), the law has had something to say about lost-and-found.

I’m not suggesting you start digging around your house for treasure.  I mean sure, you could one day learn that you sold a house that was literally a gold mine, and it was your sheer laziness and attachment to your gardenias that kept you from living like a mogul.  But you should know when, in fact, it’s OK for you to “find” something and keep it.

Anyone who has ever thrown a party knows the joys—err, responsibility—that comes with waking up the next day and finding a bunch of things that people forgot to take with them.  A sweater.  A scarf.  An iPhone.  Dollar dollar billz.  A photo ID.  Naturally, you are tempted to email your party attendants and ask if anyone forgot anything (other than their dignity).  But before you do, just think (you are probably already thinking this): THIS CAN ALL BE MINE.  And it can, provided you honestly don’t know what is whose, the property has been lost and you’re suddenly a lot warmer for winter and have a great data plan.

But here’s the rub–there is a fine, razor thin line between “finding” and straight-up stealing.

Property is not “lost” when you reach into my pocket and take it from me without my noticing.  And it isn’t “lost” when someone with a second grade degree can figure out who the true owner is (mine hangs proudly on my office wall).  Take the case of the iPhone.  Are you really going to be able to avoid figuring out whose phone is now in your possession, when the welcome screen says “TOPANGA’S PHONE!! <3 <3 <3”?  And much as you may want to keep the photo ID in case you ever need to flee the country under a false identity, you can’t really get around the fact that you know who it belongs to (although, as a fugitive, petty larceny may be the least of your worries).  But with less personalized goods, like umbrellas, and outerwear, and cold hard cash, your only responsibility is to reasonably try and find out who it belongs to.  Fortunately, what’s “reasonable” is really a fairly squishy idea.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to email your attendees in the dead of night when they’re less likely to notice.  Perfectly reasonable to use addresses that are likely long-expired.  Incredibly reasonable to write the email in Klingon font:  ta’ta’ SoH mej lIj Huch Daq wIj tuq.

The law also makes a distinction between “lost” and “mislaid” property.  Lost property is stuff that the loser (in the legal sense) is never likely to see again–maybe you found something on the side of a highway when you pulled over to relieve yourself.  But we all (especially the absent-minded among us) occasionally put stuff down, forget about it, and then immediately remember and go back for it.  Flaky people deserve property rights too. And the law protects us flakes; it generally does not allow the “finder” to keep the property, but rather the owner of the location that the property was misplaced.  This makes sense, since that’s probably the first place you’re headed to once you remember where you mislaid your possession.

But Klepto-in-Recovery, remember, being right in the eyes of the law isn’t going to save you from social stigma.  Let’s never forget that keeping things that you find can lend itself to the most awkward of encounters.  “GOSH THAT ______ LOOKS FAMILIAR….”  Best thing to do when living a “finders keepers” lifestyle is to “find” generic things that you could have plausibly bought yourself, like anything from Costco.  Avoid items with embroidered initials.  Generally avoid things made of gold or diamonds, people tend to miss them more.

KIR, it really does seem like you’ve learned that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, just make sure his “garbage” isn’t inside his apartment or on his person.  Alternatively, see next week’s column on “Breaking and Entering: When the Robbery Isn’t Just a Jersey Shore Slang Word.”

P.S.–If you’re reading this, you’re invited to my house for a party this weekend…..especially if you have a generic, both-sexes name and hate paying for things by credit card.


Luci Lawless


Note: This column is titled “This Does Not Constitute Legal Advice” because it does not constitute legal advice. If you want that, please see an attorney.