Mark McCown: ‘Finders keepers’ is not exactly the law

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 17, 2021

Dear Lawyer Mark: I have a legal question for you. If you find somebody’s wallet out in the street or on a sidewalk, what do you legally have to do with it?

Is there a law that says you have to give it to the police or find the owner?

My neighbor found a purse the other day, and it had some pretty good money in it. We were tempted to just keep it, because everyone can use some money these days, but then got to thinking about it, and wondered whether it was illegal.

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What does the law say? — FINDERS KEEPERS

Dear Finders: Ohio doesn’t really have a specific statute on lost property; rather, we have to look at what the case law says about it.
Under the case law, there are several types of property that can be “found,” the most important of which are abandoned property and lost property.

Property is abandoned when the owner intentionally parts with it.

An example of this would be somebody throwing out property with the trash. In this case, it is truly “finders keepers” and the person finding the property becomes the new owner.

Property that is lost is exactly what it says – somebody accidentally drops or loses the article in a public place.

The laws here are different than those for abandoned property. If the property is lost, and the finder knows who the owner is or the finder has reasonable grounds to know who the owner is, the finder cannot use it for himself.

In fact, if the finder does keep it and use it, he could be charged with a theft offense.

If, however, the finder doesn’t know who the owner is and couldn’t be reasonably expected to know, then the finder can keep the property for himself.

The finder does not have to take pains or extraordinary measures to determine who the owner is.

If the finder does later find out who the owner is, he does have to give it back to the owner.

The other thing you have to consider in this situation is not just what the law says, but what the right thing to do is.

Yes, everyone can use some money these days, but the one that can use it the most is the one who lost it in the first place.

Money aside, most anybody who has ever lost a wallet or purse will tell you that they would have gladly given a reward simply to avoid the hassle of canceling and getting all new credit cards, Social Security cards, drivers licenses and more importantly, to get the irreplaceable pictures of loved ones returned to them.

It’s The Law is written by attorney Mark K. McCown in response to legal questions received by him. If you have a question, please forward it to Mark K. McCown, 311 Park Avenue, Ironton, Ohio 45638, or e-mail it to him at The right to condense and/or edit all questions is reserved.