On the playground, kids follow a simple rule with unexpected
discoveries. But "finders keepers, losers weepers" doesn't always
play in the real world, as unfair as the result sometimes seems
One Florida family found that out the hard way. Spending their
holiday weekend diving off the Florida coast in search of buried
treasure, the four members of the Schmitt family struck gold --
literally, finding chains, coins, and a ring worth an estimated
$300,000. But as the
reported, under federal and state law, the Schmitts will get to
keep only about 40% of their find, with the state of Florida
staking claim to a 20% share and the remainder going to the owner
of the undersea wreckage site, a company owned by longtime
treasure hunter Brent Brisben, who has made numerous discoveries
of his own over the years.
You might not have plans to buy scuba equipment and start your
own search for undersea riches, but more practical issues come up
all the time. From finding a lost ring on the sidewalk to
beachcombing with a handheld metal detector, can you just take
the money and run -- or will trying to do so get you in over your
head in legal trouble?
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Jonund.
Pitfalls for the unwary
In Great Britain, there's a fairly easy procedure to follow for
most types of lost property. If you take the property to a police
station and file the appropriate paperwork, owners have 28 days
to claim it. After that, if it goes unclaimed, the property is
yours to keep, free and clear and with full legal rights.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., you won't find one single set of
hard and fast rules in most situations, though most states do
have laws covering lost property. In California, for instance,
the law requires finders to make an effort to locate the owner
and turn the property in to the police, but after 120 days, the
finder can keep it if no one claims it.
In other cases, though, dire consequences can result for those
who find property without reporting it. Earlier this year, a
public defender in Georgia found a $10,000 diamond ring in a
parking lot and failed to report it to the county sheriff's
office. When the owner reported the ring missing, a review of
surveillance video led to a warrant for the public defender's
arrest on charges of theft of lost property. Authorities said the
charge was based on a failure to "take reasonable measures to
restore the property to its owner."
Even worse things can happen if it turns out that the property
you found was originally stolen. In such cases,
might be accused of having been the original thief -- and with
possession itself being persuasive evidence, defending yourself
could be a much bigger hassle than you'd ever have imagined.
What to do
If you find lost property, consider these simple tips:
- Contact your local police department to learn about any
laws covering lost property.
- Consider leaving information about your find with nearby
store owners or taking out a newspaper or Craigslist ad. Doing
so could help you meet any legal obligation of taking
reasonable steps to find an owner.
- If the property is worth enough, consider consulting an
attorney. High-priced items often carry different
responsibilities -- and higher penalties for failing to
Going to all that effort might sound a lot harder than simply
keeping what you find and hoping nothing ever happens. But if it
keeps you out of jail, it'll be effort well spent.
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