Most people do not set out to commit crimes. Rather circumstances, opportunity, and others’ perceptions of the actions play a large role in deciding those individuals who may be indicted on criminal charges and those individuals who will probably never consider a potentially questionable action again. One area of particular confusion are the rights and obligations of an individual who discovers lost or mislaid property.

On one hand, some people may think that the discovery of lost or mislaid property entitles them to that property. In other words, they subscribe to the “finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers” approach to the matter. Others think that their claim to the property is less clear that a right of ownership is not established simply due to happening upon an apparently lost item. In truth, one’s right to property is not extinguished by the mere act of temporarily misplacing it. Misunderstanding this basic precept can lead to serious criminal charges depending on the amounts allegedly stolen.

What Would You Do If You Found a bag of Cash on the Street?

In a rather widely reported news story, two men were driving in northern New Jersey seeking discarded tires that they could recycle or sell. While looking for the tires along Industrial Avenue in Mahwah, the men happened upon a bag on the side of the road. When the men opened the bag and looked inside they found a large amount of cash that turned out to be approximately $150,000.

After the men in the delivery truck realized that they had forgotten a bag of money they went back to the scene. However, they were unable to locate the mislaid bag of cash. The two men apparently went into hiding after finding the bag of money and did not take any action or steps that would indicate they intended to report or return the mislaid bag of cash.

New Jersey Criminalizes the Theft of Lost, Mislaid or Mis-Delivered Property

In New Jersey, any theft greater than $75,000 is considered a second-degree crime. Under NJSA 2C:20-6 it is a crime for a person who comes into control of property that he or she knows was lost, mislaid, or improperly delivered if he or she knows the identity of the owner and intends to deprive the rightful owner of the property by converting it to the finder’s use. That is, New Jersey law requires four elements to be true to convict a defendant of the theft of lost or mislaid property.

First, the defendant must have come into control of the property of another person or entity. Property includes anything of value and can include tangible items, like a bag of cash, and intangible items like intellectual property and other interest in or claims to wealth. Property of another includes the property where the finder does not have the authority to infringe on the ownership rights of the rightful owner. The rightful owner’s rights to possession are only infringed when the finder exercises control over the property meaning that mere inspection or handling of lost property is insufficient to sustain charges of this type.

Second, the prosecutor must be able to prove that the finder knew that the property was lost or mislaid. Such a determination is fact-based and cannot be determined without a comprehensive analysis of the attendant factors and circumstances. A common defense to this element of the crime is that the defendant did not realize that the property was lost or that he or she believed the property was intended for him or her.

Third, the state must carry the burden of proof to show that the defendant knew the identity of the owner. Again, this is a rather fact-specific determination. For instance, if the bag of cash was labeled with the company name or left in the lobby of a bank, one would likely know the identity of the owner of the lost property. However, if the discovered cash was a few loose bills blowing down an abandoned street, it is highly unlikely that the finder would or could know the identity of the property’s owner.

Last, the state must prove that the defendant took the property for his or her own use and permanently deprived the owner of his or her possession or use.  

Facing New Jersey Theft Charges?

The experienced and aggressive criminal defense lawyers of the Law Firm of John J. Zarych are dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals accused of serious crimes. To schedule a free and confidential criminal defense consultation, call our firm at (609) 616-4956 or contact us online today.