Finders Keepers? How Failing to Return Lost Property Could Get You Charged with Theft

Let's say as you're going about your business, you find someone's wallet on the ground. Or maybe it's an iPhone, or a piece of jewelry. What would happen if you pick it up and take it with you, and the police later find it in your possession?

Section 485 of the California Penal Code states that someone is guilty of theft if they appropriate lost property under the following conditions:

  • They have a way of knowing or inquiring about the rightful owner of the property.
  • They take it for themselves (or for another person's use) without making "reasonable and just efforts" to find the rightful owner and return the property.

If the lost property you've found doesn't exceed $950 (and isn't a firearm or another object that's an exception to this dollar threshold), you could be charged with petty theft, a misdemeanor. For values exceeding $950, you could face either misdemeanor or felony grand theft.

When someone is facing these charges over the illegal appropriation of lost property, a defense attorney can raise a number of important questions.

For example, what constitutes a "reasonable and just effort" to find someone and return their property to them? What if it's an object that lacks obvious identifying information - and on top of that, you didn't see whose pocket it fell out of or can't narrow down the possibilities of who it could belong to?

A misunderstanding may also play a role in this kind of criminal charge. Maybe you're holding onto something because you believe someone gave it to you. Or maybe when the object was found in your possession, you were in the process of trying to hunt down the rightful owner. Under certain circumstances, you may have also thought that someone had thrown out the object or abandoned it.

Given that it's possible to face jail time, pay fines and have the crime show up on your record, you need to rely on a good attorney who can help you present your case in the best light. If you live in the Hemet, Corona, Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, or Riverside areas, contact us.

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