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When a lucky find can lead you straight to jail

View profile for Martin Pizzey
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When a lucky find can lead you straight to jail

There may be little chance of finding a 20 kg gold bar while you're out and about today, but for some residents in a remote part Russia, earlier this month, that unlikely scenario very nearly happened. 

A plane taking off from a runway in Siberia shed nearly 200 gold bars when its cargo doors flew open under the weight. The plane was forced to land and police were quick to seal off the area and prevent locals from swarming the scene.

According to the Russian authorities, all the gold bars are now accounted for, but many could not help but speculate what might have happened if the precious cargo had been scattered further over the surrounding countryside. Would the residents of the nearby villages and towns be entitled to keep any gold bars they found? Would they have been immediately rich beyond their wildest imaginings and dreaming of luxury holidays and lavish new homes?

To take this scenario one step further – if you were to find a gold bar lying in the street on your way to work, could you keep it?

Unfortunately, no. It is highly likely that you would be committing an offence which could end with you spending time behind bars. Chances are you would be guilty of theft.

Theft requires a dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another person with the intention to permanently deprive that other person of the property.    In normal language that means taking something and keeping it.  If you treat an item as your own by selling it, using it or keeping it for whatever purpose you have for it, then you are at risk of committing an offence.  The police and prosecution would need to prove that you were acting dishonestly – and that can be surprisingly easy to do.  Dishonesty as a legal issue was recently considered by the Supreme Court and the law effectively updated in a case called Ivey v Genting Casinos [2017] UKSC 67.

The test for dishonesty is mostly an objective one whilst taking account of the state of mind of the person charged with the offence.  Once facts relating to that state of mind are established, the question is whether by the standards of ordinary decent people, was the state of mind honest or dishonest.  It does not matter whether the person charged had different standards of decency.  The judgement is compared against ‘ordinary decent people’. 

A direction given to a jury would include a request to consider all the circumstances in which the behaviour occurred, including what defendant himself or herself knew or believed to be the factual situation. The jury would be asked to have that in mind when asking itself whether - in light of any understanding of circumstances - the behaviour was dishonest by the standards of ordinary decent people.

Coming back to gold bars falling from the sky, the childhood rule of ‘finder’s keepers’ will not help your defence.  The gold bar obviously has a significant value and it would be very unlikely that it was left and abandoned by the true owner. That true owner would most likely want their gold bar back.  By keeping it and treating as your own a jury or magistrate’s court may conclude by the standards or ordinary decent people this was dishonest. 

Those ordinary and decent people will, in their lives, lose things from time to time.  It could be anything from a wallet full of cash to a sentimentally valuable piece of jewellery.   Most would hope the finder would hand their possession in to the police and ultimately be re-united with it.  If that is not done by the finder, the allegation they risk is one of theft - sometimes referred to as “theft by finding.”  

In contrast though, if the item found was of a very low value or appeared to have been discarded, abandoned or thrown away, that genuinely held belief, if accepted by a court, may negate the dishonesty.

Procedures and laws apply when finding property and handing it to the police if the identity of the true owner cannot be established.  If such property is not claimed within a certain amount of time, it can be possible to then acquire it without a later risk of being accused of dishonesty and theft.  However – should the true owner came forward, even a very long time after the item had been acquired, they would still have a civil law right to the recovery of their property.

So, if a gold bar lands outside your house it may be good idea to take it to a police station.