Are you wondering if it is illegal to keep found money? Finding a pile of cash on the street is a stroke of good luck that sometimes hits just at the right time for the finder, but it’s obviously a stroke of bad luck for the person who dropped it.
The ethical and moral questions of whether to return found money or make an effort to find its rightful owner are obvious enough, but what about your legal obligations? Must you turn found money into the police station as a matter of law? Is it illegal to keep the cash you find?
While finding a bag full of cash makes for good movie plots, putting fictional characters in dilemmas to which almost everyone can relate, the concept of “finder’s keepers, losers weepers” raises plenty of legal questions. Is it theft to keep found money? What should someone do if they find a significant amount of money with little means to find its rightful owner?
It doesn’t matter if it is a large amount of money, a dollar bill, or credit cards, it’s the same laws.
Finders Keepers Laws and Regulations around the World
When someone finds a large amount of money and turns it into the police, such stories are picked up by the local and international news media and often highlight the honesty of the finder and the efforts of the police to track down the rightful owner of the cash. That is unless they believe the money is owned by criminals.
In the United Kingdom, there are no specific laws governing the legality of keeping found cash, as the Guardian reported back in 2013. The newspaper’s report, spurred by a woman who found a bag containing 60,000 pounds floating in a waterway while walking her dog, quoted the country’s Association of Police Chiefs as saying it was a matter of “conscience” whether to turn such a find into police.
Other cases, like one of a construction worker finding 18,000 pounds in a burnt-out apartment, involve turning the money into law enforcement who can reasonably conclude such large amounts of cash were generated by criminal activity, making it the subject of seizure orders.
Obviously, when you find a large sum of money, it’s more likely to be criminal money. Maybe you will be more inclined to find the original owner to avoid revenge.
Make “reasonable efforts” to find the property’s rightful owner
In the United States, different jurisdictions have different rules of course, but some state laws do require people who find money or property to make “reasonable efforts” to find the property’s rightful owner. In the state of California, for example, the penal code has a section about “appropriation of lost property,” requiring a finder to make an attempt to reunite the lost property or money with its rightful owner before taking it for their own use.
But being charged with theft under the California penal code in these situations depends on the circumstances. The code states that a finder of lost property must make an effort to find the owner of the circumstances of the find gives them “knowledge” or a means to find the property’s true owner.
If you find money can you keep it?
So, if you see someone drop a wad of cash on the street and pick it up and don’t try to return it, that could give rise to a theft charge, for instance. Or, If you find a wallet with a large amount of cash in it along with an identification card with an address or contact information, keeping the money without trying to contact the owner could also lead to theft charges.
But finding a garbage bag full of cash with no discernable way of finding the owner is another story. Contacting a lawyer before turning it into the police may be advisable since it could be awarded to a finder should the police be unable to find the rightful owner or conclude it was the illicit proceeds of criminal activity.
Lost and found property
Canadian law, meanwhile, is short on specifics when it comes to lost and found property, and cases that end up in court don’t necessarily involve cut-and-dry examples of someone finding cash or a piece of expensive jewellery on a public sidewalk. When legal disputes arise over found property, the core issues often involve whether the property has been abandoned voluntarily or not.
One case from the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan in 1998, Stewart v. Gustafson, involved the sellers of a piece of land who left possessions on the property well after the deal closed. The parties’ solicitors had agreed upon a deadline and several extensions to remove the “chattels” left on the lands, which included a boat engine, tools, and a bunch of derelict vehicles.
Is it illegal to keep found money?
The judge found there were five different categories of property left on the lands, some of it worthless and some of it still holding value. The Gustafsons hauled some of the refuse to the dump but sold the boat engine for $300. Some of the chattel property, the judge found, had indeed been voluntarily abandoned and allowed the Gustafsons to be at “liberty” to deal with it however they pleased, which included “assuming ownership of them.”
However, the judge ruled that the sale of the boat engine was a “conversion” of Stewart’s property, and awarded the couple $300 in damages, equivalent to what it was sold for by the Gustafsons. Finally, the judge concluded that much of the chattel property left on the lands by the Stewarts had turned the buyers into “unwilling custodians” of the seemingly abandoned items and denied damages for breach of duty of care which had been sought by the Stewarts.
An easy way to avoid something that could be considered theft is just to call the police office. You can also try and email law enforcement from a fake email. It’s very unlikely that keeping cash that you found in a parking lot is larceny, but sometimes it’s best to be safe.
Provincial Unclaimed Property Laws
In British Columbia and other provinces, unclaimed property laws don’t necessarily deal with specific instances of finding money on the ground, but rather “unclaimed” property or funds held by the government. This can include money held in dormant bank accounts, for example. The Unclaimed Property Act in B.C. establishes that an administrator must make efforts to find the owners of unclaimed funds, including the maintenance of an unclaimed property database.
At the end of the day, you need to do the right thing, whatever that is for you.
Is it illegal to keep the cash you find conclusion
For the most part, whether it’s lawful or unlawful to keep the cash you find on the ground depends on the circumstances and where you live. Some state laws may obligate a finder to make reasonable efforts to reunite lost cash or property with its rightful owner before claiming it as their own.
Finding small amounts of money, a few coins or a few dollars, might not be a newsworthy find that will get someone on the evening news for turning it in, but finding a bag of cash wadded up with elastic bands will certainly make headlines.
Therefore, the moral, ethical, and legal quandaries of finding lost money all come into play when trying to decide to turn the money in, try and find the owner, or just put it in your pocket and keep quiet in hopes that nobody steps forward to claim it as their own.
If you are ever unsure what to do, get legal advice from a law firm. A lawyer can explain local laws to you. if you are afraid of lawyers, you can go to a police department and speak to your local police. Doing something like this (checking) is an easy way to avoid getting a criminal charge of larceny.
This all being said, if you choose to keep the money, we doubt you will ever see your day in Supreme Court.