Posted by: bridget | 27 June 2007

Is This Even Legal?

The Washington Post reports that many finders of lost objects will demand a ransom for them. The WaPo phrases this as a sort of moral dilemma, social contract, or payment for services rendered (i.e. finding and returning the lost object). For example, a person who finds a cell phone may demand several hundred dollars for its return. Arguably, it is worth it to the owner to not have to replace the phone and find several hundred numbers; however, it is a dead-weight cost on a transaction with little real cost.

Generally, there are not ethical or legal issues involved in asking for compensation for expenses incurred. The owner of a lost sheep should compensate someone who fed it for several days; the owner of a lost cell phone should give the finder some money for gas if she drops it off at his house. Straight-up ransom, however, is not legal nor moral; the fact that the person accidentally found the object instead of affirmatively taking it does not change the nature of the wrongdoing.

In property law, the true owner retains full rights to his property; the finder has rights above everyone else save the owner. The demand of a ransom, above costs incurred to maintain the property, is unlawful: it requires someone to pay for the property which is already theirs by right. If the finder retains the property, absent a payment, he has engaged in theft: “the generic term for all crimes in which a person intentionally and fraudulently takes personal property of another without permission or consent and with the intent to convert it to the taker’s use (including potential sale).” Here, the original owner has the option to buy it, which does not change the fact that the taker has converted it to his use for his profit; also, the taker still retains the property without the permission or consent of the owner, once the true owner is found.

If people could demand ransoms for found objects, there is little to prevent them from affirmatively stealing said objects, demanding ransoms, and, if caught, declaring that it was all legal because the owner misplaced his property. Such is plainly absurd. What the pachyderm fails to understand is how this is framed as a social contract issue – of community against individualism – when property and criminal law address the issue.



  1. Good points, especially on the hypothetical. All thieves could claim they “found” the property.

    On a lighter note, this reminds me of The Simpsons episode where Lionel Hutz (the not-so-successful lawyer) cites precedent with the case of Finders vs. Keepers.

  2. Leave it to you to bring up the Simpsons. :)

    On another note, I guess this is just another example of how property law and criminal law “legislate morality.” If the victims sought justice, they would be forcing people to act morally. Go figure.

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