I am sure that most of our parents told us the old adage "finders keepers, losers weepers," basically telling us to take care of our possessions because if we lost or misplaced them, the finder got to keep them. Many of us understand basic human nature and understand that if we lose a wallet that is full of money, the likelihood of us having the wallet returned with its contents is low. We may hope that a citizen that finds lost property makes an attempt to return it to its owner, but most of us are practical enough to understand that the lost property is unlikely to be returned.
Pennsylvania Criminal Offense of Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property
While "finder keepers, losers weepers" is the common sense approach that is understood by most people, Pennsylvania law defies common sense and actually requires a person to try and return lost property. Many people are not aware that it is a theft offense to keep property that a person believes has been lost, mislaid, or delivered by mistake. More specifically, 18 Pa.C.S. § 3924, titled Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property, states that it is a crime to take control of property that a person knows has been lost, mislaid, or delivered by mistake if the person does not take reasonable measures to return the property to the lawful owner.
The severity of theft offenses is primarily based upon the value of the item taken. The grading of Theft of Lost or Mislaid property can range from misdemeanor to felony charges, and such charges would appear on criminal background searches. For some first time offenders, the person may be eligible to participate in a first time offenders program known as Accelerated Rehabilitaitve Disposition (ARD). I address many common questions about the Centre County ARD program on my website.
Ignorance of the Law Is No Defense
Many people probably believe that the police would not charge a person for Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property if the person was not aware of the law and readily surrendered the lost property after being confronted by law enforcement. Regretfully, ignorance of the law is not a defense, meaning the fact that a person was unaware of the duty to return lost property does not result in the dismissal of the theft charge.
Some people would assume that the police would exercise discretion and not charge a person that was unaware of the law and readily turned over the property after being informed of the possible criminal charges. I just talked to a client's mother this past week and had to inform her that some local police departments exercise little charging discretion and instead file all charges that are permitted by law. In this case, the client was confronted by police about the lost property, and the client immediately told the police precisely where he found the property and surrendered the property to the police. Despite the client's ignorance of the law and willingness to cooperate, charges of Theft and Receiving Stolen Property were filed with a State College Court. Another example of common sense not being found in the Centre County criminal justice system.
Teaching Your Children About Lost Property
For parents of children, you must abandon the adage of "finders keepers, losers weepers" as you instructing your children to violate Pennsylvania law regarding theft. If you are walking on the street and see a penny, a $5.00 dollar bill, a wallet, or a diamond ring, it is my recommendation as a State College criminal defense lawyer to keep walking. If you take possession of the item, you are not required by law to take reasonable measure to return it to the owner. If an officer doesn't believe that you took reasonable measures, then you could be charged with Theft. Instead of "finder keepers," finders must actively locate the owner to avoid criminal prosecution. If you are charged with theft of any other criminal offense, you should call State College criminal defense attorney Jason S. Dunkle for a free consultation.