If you’re walking down the street and see a nice crisp twenty dollar bill, it may feel like your lucky day. But if you consider the other side of it, someone else just had a very unlucky day, and while you’re up twenty dollars, they are now out that same amount. That’s why it is illegal to keep money you found on the ground in California, unless you first attempt to find the owner.
What to do if You Find Money on the Ground
California law says that if you find lost property (not limited to just cash), you must first make “reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him” before you can keep the money for yourself. If you fail to do so, you have technically committed theft. In fact, you can even get in trouble if you give the money to someone else you know it doesn’t belong to, so even if you give it to a homeless person, for example, you’re still breaking the law.
As for what is considered “reasonable and just efforts to find the owner,” criminal attorney Peter Liss says this can vary from person to person and from one situation to another. What you should do if you happen to find a large sum of money is not the same as what you are expected to do after finding a few dollars.
Obviously, if you just mumble under your breath when you know no one’s around, “did anyone lose this money,” you probably didn’t meet the requirement no matter how small the sum. But if you find a dollar at a trolley station, you probably only need to ask the people in your immediate vicinity if they lost money. On the other hand, if you find $13,000 in a lunch bag outside of a bank, you are legally expected to make a little more effort to find the owner, who most likely really needs the money.
Some of the most frequently used ways to return larger amounts of money are to tell the manager of an establishment that you found money and then leave your name and number with her, to put a classified ad on Craigslist or in the newspaper, to put the money in the lost and found of the place where you discovered it, or to bring the money to the nearest police station.
The good news is that if the rightful owner claims the money, you’ve done a good deed and made someone else’s day much brighter. And if they don’t claim it, you have the right to keep the money you discovered on the ground. Many establishment’s lost and founds allow the person who brings property in to keep it after a set time. If you bring it to a police department and fill out a report and no one claims the money, it’s yours to keep after 120 days.
Will I Really be Charged for Keeping Lost Money?
The reality is that you won’t normally be charged with this crime, and the lower the value of the money or property, the less likely it is that you’ll face legal trouble. If you see a broken ATM shooting out money or if an armored truck crashes, leaving money flying around on the freeway though, you can be charged for taking and keeping the money if police track you down. In fact, these situations are the most frequent incidences where people are charged with this crime as there is often video footage, and in many cases, your identifiable information, like your license plate, can be used to track you down.
One other circumstance which will likely result in charges is you find a wallet that has identification in it and make no effort to contact the owner. If you use the credit cards found in the wallet, then the crime is also identity theft.
Penalties for Keeping Found Cash or Property
Keeping lost money or property is considered theft, which means you can face an infraction for a notably small amount of money, petty theft for values up to $950 and grand theft when it is worth more than $950. While petty theft is always a misdemeanor offense, grand theft can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. When charged as a felony, grand theft can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison. This is why anyone accused of grand theft should call a theft lawyer who can help negotiate a plea bargain to ensure the crime is charged as a misdemeanor. Of course, if you believe you made a reasonable and fair effort to find the owner of lost money, this could also serve as a defense.
If you have been accused of theft related to keeping cash you found on the ground, please call theft defense attorney Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.