Finders Keepers?

What does the law say regarding things which you may happen to find and may want to keep? For example if you find a £20 note on the street? Richard Lamb , criminal Solicitor for Berry and Lamberts takes a closer look at the various possible scenarios.

Finding money

Finders’ keepers? Well, no, that’s not necessarily always the right thing to do. You might have heard of the Nicole Bailey case. She was a young person who found and kept a £20 note which she had picked up and, for her efforts, she ended up with a criminal record. Until that incident took place the law surrounding similar scenarios was fairly ambiguous. However, that sort of behaviour is now regarded as, ‘theft by finding’.

The Theft Act of 1968 describes theft in part as an act where a person, ‘dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another’. Therefore, if you happen to find money and don’t attempt to return it to its owner, you may fall within the legal definition of having committed ‘theft by finding.’

If you come across money, even of a sum as low as £20, you should always attempt to find the owner of the money and return it to them, because a bank note constitutes property which ‘belongs to another.’ The only exception to the rule is if you can prove that the property has been deliberately abandoned by the owner and there is usually no sure way of deciding that  has occurred at the moment when you decide to pick up the money and keep it.

Consequently, it’s imperative you take all reasonable steps in order to find the owner of the property by, for example, contacting the police. Once you have contacted the police and handed over the money, usually  if the money has not been claimed by its rightful owner within a reasonable period of time (usually 30 days) you will then be designated to be the lawful owner of the money which will be returned to you.

What about Finding Money in a Cashpoint?

Luckily for us, most cashpoints retract cash almost immediately if it hasn’t been taken, so this usually isn’t an issue. However, if you do find yourself facing this situation, you should do the following:

Wait to see if the cashpoint “sucks the money back in”, if this doesn’t happen, take the money and make a note of the specific machine, the amount, and the time of the incident before going straight to the nearest police station or to the bank operating the machine and hand all of the money in to them.

As tempting as it may be, don’t keep the money for yourself. It is easily traceable and should always be returned to the owner. Many A.T.M.s also have CCTV cameras on or near them, so you will almost certainly be identified by the police and end up with a criminal conviction for theft.

What about Taking Things from a Skip?

It may seem safe to assume that if someone puts something into a skip, they don’t want that property anymore. Surprisingly, that isn’t always the case. If you don’t check, you may end up being found guilty of theft.

This is because the owner of the property might change their mind about whether or not they want to keep the property after all or there might be another reason why the property is in the skip in the first place. The owner may want to double check what’s in the skip before getting rid of it. Considering these reasons, it’s both polite and good practice to always check with and ask for the owner’s permission before “diving” into their skip.

You should also ask yourself whether or not the skip is on private land? If it is, not only could you be found guilty of stealing, but also possibly trespassing as well. Just because someone has a skip on their drive, doesn’t necessarily mean that they want people going through their skip and property, rubbish or not.

Treasure Trove

So, what do you do if you find buried treasure in your back garden or if you want to take something of interest which you have found washed up on your local beach?

How you handle these finds in England & Wales is governed by the Treasure Act of 1996. Anything washed up from a ship constitutes a ‘wreck’, even if the boat or ship hasn’t strictly speaking been shipwrecked. These goods belong to whoever owned them before they fell into the sea. If the goods end up being washed up on the shore, whoever finds them must declare them within 28 days of finding. If you fail to report the items found you could be prosecuted for theft.

However, finding buried treasure is slightly different. If the goods are predominantly made from something substantial and of value for example Roman silver or Saxon gold and the heirs to the finding are unknown, the goods will be classified as ‘treasure’.

You are legally obliged to report finding the ‘treasure’ to your local coroner within two weeks of having discovered it.  Should you fail to do so you could face a custodial sentence of up to three months or an unlimited fine. If it is declared as a treasure trove then the value of the treasure found will be divided between you and the landowner where the treasure was discovered.

If you wish to discuss any criminal legal concerns please contact Richard Lamb, Solicitor, on 01732 355911 or rlamb@berryandlamberts.co.uk.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice.  The law may have changed since this article was published.   Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances