A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Can’t Hold on to Your Wallet? Read This

Lost Wallet

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

My wallet and I have a difficult relationship. I try to make sure it’s stays put in my pocket or bag, and it tries to wander off into the great unknown without me. I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve lost my wallet in the past ten years, but suffice it say, I would probably need to count on both hands.

Over the past decade, I’ve been an equal opportunity wallet-loser in terms of geography. My wallet’s gone missing in New York, D.C., Botswana, Montreal—you pick a region, and I’ve probably lost my wallet there. But while I’ve visited my grandparents in Florida many, many times, somehow, I’ve never lost my wallet in the Sunshine State. And this is a shame, because, according to the sheriff’s department in Port Charlotte, whoever found it there would have been obliged to turn it over to the police or to me, or be guilty of a crime.

As reported by the Huffington Post, Rene Marie Glynn of Port Charlotte, Florida found an iPhone4 in a Walmart bathroom. She got in touch with the phone owner and told her she’d be happy to return it – for money. The phone owner agreed, but had already called the police to report it missing. So when the phone owner’s boyfriend met Ms. Glynn to pay the “ransom” and get the phone back, police were on hand to arrest her as soon as she was paid. Ms. Glynn was then charged with grand theft and dealing in stolen property. The HuffPo article quoted the sheriff’s office as saying “failure to report the finding to law enforcement or return the property when asked is considered theft.”

Have I been losing my wallet in all the wrong places?! I decided to investigate.

Laws in the U.S. do not usually impose positive obligations on people. For example, as every law student learns in a first year Torts class, a layperson, assuming he or she has not created a dangerous situation, has no duty to rescue someone in need of help. Our laws generally don’t tell us what we must do, but rather list what we are prohibited from doing, such as stealing puppies or setting other people’s homes on fire. (hence the controversy over the Affordable Care Act, which requires people to pay a fee. The Roberts court got around this issue by calling the Act a tax).

As it turns out, the Florida statute pertaining to lost property is a little different than what the sheriff’s office said. The statute reads: “Any person who unlawfully appropriates such lost or abandoned property to his or her own use or refuses to deliver such property when required commits theft.” This is where it gets a little sticky. The law actually doesn’t say that someone who finds property must report it to the police. Instead, the law says that the finder cannot do anything with the property — it’s a prohibition on taking an action. Practically, though, this can come down to the same thing. Because, really, what’s the use of having a phone lying around that you can’t use or give to someone else?

In this case, Ms. Glynn clearly violated the statute. She would only deliver the property for a reward, which, as we know, got her arrested. But what about all the people who didn’t return my many lost wallets? Have they broken the law?

I decided to research the law in the state I now reside, in the hopes of doing my future self a solid by knowing the law. But alas, New York seems to be a bit more lenient on lucky finders of property than Florida is.

New York’s penal code includes a provision for larceny which covers acquiring lost property and states that a person is only required to take “reasonable measures” to find the owner before keeping the lost property as her own.

In New York, thanks to the 1996 People v. Dadon case in the New York County Criminal Court, holding lost property for ransom and trying to exact a reward from the true property owners does not constitute taking a “reasonable measure” to return the property, and is, in fact, a crime. So Ms. Glynn’s actions would have been a crime here too.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me one bit — no one has ever even called me to return my wallet, let alone attempt to hold it ransom (which bums me out because it would be pretty exciting to set up a sting operation to retrieve it!).  Now that it’s a new year though, I’m resolved to try even harder to hold onto my wallet. Though if I do lose it, and if someone contacts me and offers to return it for a reward, I’ll definitely be bringing some of New York’s finest to our meeting.

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