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Finders keepers? Not always!

Recently, a woman from Stoke-on-Trent was convicted of theft after she pocketed a £20 note she found on the floor of her local supermarket.

You may wonder how innocently picking up a bank note in a store could be theft. It would be easy to think that the person who dropped it there had probably forgotten about it.

Well, not quite. If you take something you find in public – such as a bank note or item of jewellery, for instance, before deciding that it is yours, you need to think about the possibility that someone might simply have lost it. Apparently, the lady in question made no effort to find out who had dropped the £20 note.

So, what should you do if you do happen on something valuable in the street or in some other public place?

The law says that you must take reasonable steps to find the owner. You could do this by taking it to the nearest store or police station, or perhaps the nearest household. Whatever you do, the law says that you should not simply decide that it is yours without further investigation.

Back in 1694, one Mr Lamb, a hackney coachman in the city of London, upon cleaning out his vehicle at the end of the working day, found that one of his passengers had left some items of luggage behind. He decided that the property belonged to him and failed to make any effort to return it. He was brought before the magistrates and convicted of theft. See the case of (1694) 2 East PC 664. He was lucky that the value of the goods was less than £10 or he could have faced a capital sentence, as was the custom in those days.

Many a person has found themselves before the courts over the centuries having, as they thought, innocently picked up some trinket, coin or note from the street or gutter. According to the law, the finder must try to ascertain the object's ownership. The good news is that if reasonable efforts are made to find the owner and these are unsuccessful, then after a period of time the object can become the property of the owner.

For example, if the finder takes the item to the police station, then if the owner does not come forward to claim their property, usually after about six weeks the item can be claimed by the finder.

As to whether the original owner loses all rights to the property that is another question. Possession is not ownership and perhaps the original owner might turn up out of the blue one day and begin an action for recovery, if the item is valuable enough. The law of theft by finding is applied in all common law jurisdictions, not just England and Wales. So, this law is also in force in the United States, Australia, Canada and most other Commonwealth countries.

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