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Is it legal to keep money that you find?

View profile for Sean Joyce
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Is it legal to keep money that you find?

The definition of theft under Section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 is the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of it.

Picking up cash found on the street (which is the ‘appropriation’ element), making no effort to establish who it might belong to or why it has been left there (the ‘dishonesty’ element) and then keeping it (the ‘permanently’ depriving element), fulfils this definition and means that the finder may well be guilty of theft. The same applies to finding any property which might have been lost, accidentally left or misplaced by its owner.

So in effect the law requires someone who finds property (including cash) to make enquiries as to who the owner is and then make efforts to return it to them where possible. The most obvious way of discharging this responsibility is to simply hand the cash in at a police station.

To avoid being guilty of theft you’d have to satisfy yourself that the property has been genuinely ‘abandoned’ by its owner, but you can’t assume this to be the case just because you’ve found something lying around, certainly not without making efforts to establish this to be the case. If, after handing it in at the police station, for example, no-one claims the property after a reasonable period of time has passed, then you may have an argument that this is evidence of it having been abandoned by the owner, but this will depend on the circumstances and the nature and value of the property. One might argue that the greater the value of the property, the less likely it is that it’s been abandoned, especially in the case of cash.

The way to think of it is how you might feel about someone finding money that you’ve lost, making no effort to trace you, and simply keeping it? I’d suggest that when viewed from this perspective most of us would agree that such conduct is wrong and that we’d been the victim of a crime. So in summary finders are not necessarily keepers!