“Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
That’s the law of boyhood – and this law is sometimes recited when one friend has lost something, and his or her friend has found it.
But California law actually addresses what happens when lost property is found.
If lost property is found on land that belongs to someone else, then the finder generally has a better claim to it than the landowner. That is, of course, unless the “found” property actually belongs to the landowner. If a person is legally on land that belongs to someone else, then if such person “finds” lost property belonging to someone other than the landowner, then the landowner usually has no right to require the finder to give the item to the landowner, even though the lost item was found on the landowner’s property.
But the situation is different if the property was “mislaid” instead of lost. If the item that is found was merely “mislaid,” then the finder is required to turn it over to the landowner. Why? Because the landowner is in a better position to ultimately return it to the true owner.
If either the finder or the landowner knows who the true owner is, then either lost or mislaid property is required to be returned to the true owner.
Believe it or not, the California Legislature has passed a series of laws that deal with lost property. If a person finds property, and if there’s a reasonable way to find the true owner, then such person is required by California Penal Code section 485 to take reasonable steps to find the true owner. Failure to take reasonable steps to find the true owner is theft. But if the true owner can’t reasonably be found and the item is worth less than $100, then so long as the true owner isn’t known, the finder can keep the found property. If the found item is worth more than $100, then Civil Code section 2080.1 requires the finder to turn it over to the police. If the true owner doesn’t claim it within 90 days, then the finder can keep it if it’s worth less than $250. If it’s worth over $250, then the police are required to publish at least one notice. But if the true owner still doesn’t claim the found property within 90 days, then the finder keeps it. (There are special rules for employees of public agencies. When lost property is found by public agency employees, it must be sold at public auction).