On the playground, kids follow a simple rule with unexpected discoveries. But "finders keepers, losers weepers" doesn't always play in the real world, as unfair as the result sometimes seems to be.
One Florida family found that out the hard way. Spending their holiday weekend diving off the Florida coast in search of buried treasure, the four members of the Schmitt family struck gold -- literally, finding chains, coins, and a ring worth an estimated $300,000. But as the Orlando Sentinel reported, under federal and state law, the Schmitts will get to keep only about 40% of their find, with the state of Florida staking claim to a 20% share and the remainder going to the owner of the undersea wreckage site, a company owned by longtime treasure hunter Brent Brisben, who has made numerous discoveries of his own over the years.
You might not have plans to buy scuba equipment and start your own search for undersea riches, but more practical issues come up all the time. From finding a lost ring on the sidewalk to beachcombing with a handheld metal detector, can you just take the money and run -- or will trying to do so get you in over your head in legal trouble?
Pitfalls for the unwary
In Great Britain, there's a fairly easy procedure to follow for most types of lost property. If you take the property to a police station and file the appropriate paperwork, owners have 28 days to claim it. After that, if it goes unclaimed, the property is yours to keep, free and clear and with full legal rights.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., you won't find one single set of hard and fast rules in most situations, though most states do have laws covering lost property. In California, for instance, the law requires finders to make an effort to locate the owner and turn the property in to the police, but after 120 days, the finder can keep it if no one claims it.
In other cases, though, dire consequences can result for those who find property without reporting it. Earlier this year, a public defender in Georgia found a $10,000 diamond ring in a parking lot and failed to report it to the county sheriff's office. When the owner reported the ring missing, a review of surveillance video led to a warrant for the public defender's arrest on charges of theft of lost property. Authorities said the charge was based on a failure to "take reasonable measures to restore the property to its owner."
Even worse things can happen if it turns out that the property you found was originally stolen. In such cases, you might be accused of having been the original thief -- and with possession itself being persuasive evidence, defending yourself could be a much bigger hassle than you'd ever have imagined.
What to do
If you find lost property, consider these simple tips:
- Contact your local police department to learn about any laws covering lost property.
- Consider leaving information about your find with nearby store owners or taking out a newspaper or Craigslist ad. Doing so could help you meet any legal obligation of taking reasonable steps to find an owner.
- If the property is worth enough, consider consulting an attorney. High-priced items often carry different responsibilities -- and higher penalties for failing to comply.
Going to all that effort might sound a lot harder than simply keeping what you find and hoping nothing ever happens. But if it keeps you out of jail, it'll be effort well spent.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.