You found a wallet, but is it yours?
By A.J. Wagner
A young man found a wallet beneath the bleachers at his high school. The wallet contained $500, about $200 worth of Japanese yen, the owner’s home address and some pictures of the owner.
The young man shared his bounty with some other friends and promised more of it to an adult 20-year-old if he would take the yen to a bank and exchange it for dollars. This was in a small town in Ohio where bank policy requires that if someone comes in to exchange foreign currency, the police must be alerted. The police arrived, arrested the 20-year-old and soon caught up with the juvenile who led them to where the wallet had been tossed. They were charged with possession of stolen property.
At trial in juvenile court, the owner of the wallet testified how he had noticed his wallet missing and immediately reported it to the school office. In turn, a school-wide broadcast was made that the wallet had been lost.
The young defendant argued, “This property was found. It was not stolen! Sure I heard the announcement, but hey, finders keepers!”
His attorney argued that the law under which his client was charged, Ohio Revised Code section 2913.51(A) provides, “No person shall receive, retain, or dispose of property of another knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the property has been obtained through commission of a theft offense.”
The attorney noted that the wallet was not obtained through the commission of a theft offense. It was found.
What do you think? You can pause here and grab a glass of milk, eat some fruit, use the facilities, cogitate, ruminate, ponder, think and otherwise decide what you would do as the judge in this situation. Then come back and read on from HERE.
The judge decided the defendant was a delinquent child, i.e. guilty. The juvenile court identified three facts that it found determinative in rendering its decision: (1) The wallet contained objects that could identify the owner; (2) A loudspeaker announcement was made to the entire school the day after the wallet was found; and (3) The hasty manner in which the wallet was discarded after the money was taken from it indicated that the young man knew what he did was wrong.
As to how finding something becomes a theft, the Ohio Third District Court of Appeals said common-law principles governing finder’s law shed some light on the intricacies of this case. Common-law is law developed through court decisions as opposed to laws enacted by the legislature. Common-law comes out of the English tradition where laws were the province of the courts. In the U.S., legislatures enact laws and the courts enforce those laws that are enacted. Where clarity is needed, however, a court may reach out to common-law or other court decisions to determine what the law is or should be.
In this case, the court determined under common-law that if the finder of lost property has reasonable grounds to believe that the finder knows the owner or the owner can be found, the finder cannot appropriate the property to his or her own use as against the owner. The court further explained, “When property belonging to another is found and the circumstances apparent to the finder at the time that the property was found indicate that the property is lost, as opposed to abandoned, the finder can be guilty of larceny if at the time of taking the property the finder intends to steal it.”
Finally, the court cited the actual definition of theft under Ohio statutory law: “No person, with purpose to deprive the owner of property or services, shall knowingly obtain or exert control over either the property or services …[w]ithout the consent of the owner or person authorized to give consent.”
The young man was charged with “receiving stolen property” and that is the statute cited by his attorney above. The receiving stolen property law applies to somebody who later obtains something that is stolen, but “should have known or had reasonable cause to believe” it was stolen. This law can also apply to the actual thief. As a judge I often heard defendants say, “But I didn’t know the car was stolen.” To which a prosecutor would reply, “Your honor, the column was stripped, he had no keys and he said he got the car from a friend for $20. He can’t name the friend.” Such cases usually ended with a plea of guilty.
Applying the definition of “theft” and looking at some common-law, the court came to the conclusion: Finders weepers.
Disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and information only. Do not use this as a legal consultation. Every situation has different nuances that can affect the outcome and laws change without notice. If you’re in a situation that calls for legal advice, get a lawyer. You represent yourself at your own risk. The author, the Dayton City Paper and its affiliates shall have no liability stemming from your use of the information contained herein.
A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.