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Is It Against the Law to Keep Lost Property?

In California, it’s against the law to intentionally take someone else’s property. When many people hear this, they may think only about items that a person intentionally set out to get, such as when someone breaks into another person’s home to steal their TV. However, there is also another law on the books that makes it illegal to keep property that someone finds.

The Law Prohibiting Keeping Lost Property

California Penal Code 485 PC criminalizes keeping something someone may have accidentally dropped or left behind when steps could be taken to find the individual and return the item.

The law says that a person can be guilty of theft if they:

  • Find lost property,
  • Can reasonably inquire as to who the owner is,
  • Fail to make just efforts to find the owner, and
  • Keep the property for their own or someone else’s use

For instance, suppose Johnny was walking down the sidewalk when he saw a $20 bill fall out of a woman’s purse. He picked up the cash, but rather than returning it to the owner, he pocketed it. In this scenario, Johnny’s actions violate the law because he knew who dropped the money and he could have caught up to her to return it.

However, let’s say Johnny saw the $20 lying on the ground and no one else is around. He wouldn’t have to go to every nearby store or home to try to figure out who it belongs to. In this case, keeping the cash likely isn’t a violation of the law.

What Are the Penalties for Keeping Lost Property?

Appropriating lost property is a theft crime. If a person is convicted of this offense, the punishments they could be facing depend on how much the property is worth. The individual could be charged with petty theft if the value is less than $950. However, keeping lost property that exceeds that amount is grand theft.

Petty theft can be charged as either an infraction or a misdemeanor. When the value of the property is no more than $50, it may be an infraction. In this case, the conviction penalties include a fine of up to $250.

When charged as a misdemeanor, the punishments include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 6 months.

Grand theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The level of offense depends on the specifics of the circumstances, such as the type of property involved and the person’s criminal history. A conviction for felony-level grand theft results in prison time for 16 months or 2 or 3 years. A misdemeanor conviction carries with it a jail term of not more than 1 year.

If you’ve been charged with a theft crime in Newport Beach, contact Corrigan Welbourn Stokke, APLC for the effective defense you need. We can be reached by phone at (949) 251-0330, or you can fill out an online contact form, and we’ll respond promptly.