What is “theft by finding” and could you go to jail for it?

By Isabelle Coetzee

Imagine you’re walking around a small shop and you pick up a wad of cash lying on the ground. Now imagine you’re contacted by the police for theft because the store cameras recorded you picking it up.

“Theft by finding” is an offence, and you could land in deep water if you don’t understand it. We find out what this is, what the consequences could be, and what you should do if you find someone else’s property.

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What is “theft by finding”?

According to Rui Lopes, managing director at Lopes Attorneys Inc, property which is found and kept can be considered stolen. It all depends on the intention of the owner, and the person who finds it.  

“Where property has been abandoned by its owner, the property cannot be stolen. The courts have further elaborated to indicate that, where the finder honestly believes that the property has been abandoned, the crime of theft is not committed,” says Lopes.

Lopes explains that the same applies when it’s not feasible to return the property to the rightful owner because they are unknown or untraceable, and therefore the finder takes the property for themselves. This might apply, for example, to a coin found lying on the sidewalk.

“However, where property is not abandoned by the owner, but merely lost, and it’s reasonably possible to determine who the rightful owner is, a finder who takes the property for their own gain may be found guilty of theft,” says Lopes.

He adds that where a finder is in possession of the property, their intention for taking and keeping the property will be considered.

“Where it is the intention of the finder to keep the property safe until the rightful owner enquires about the property, this will not be considered theft. However, when the finder takes the property, reasonably knowing who the owner may be, for their own gain, the conduct will amount to theft,” explains Lopez.

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What are the consequences, and what should you do?

Lopez says that if you’re convicted of any form of theft, you may face a fine or imprisonment, amongst other less common penalties. The judge in the matter does have discretion in the sentence that will ultimately be passed.

Lopez says that when you find property, you should consider whether it is reasonably possible to find the owner. For example, if you find something lying on the floor at work, it’s possible to find the owner by asking around if anyone has lost such an object.

“On the other hand, if you find an object on the floor of a busy mall, with thousands of people moving in and out on a daily basis, you can enquire whether someone has lost the object at the information desk. However, it will be a lot more difficult to ascertain who the rightful owner is,” says Lopez.

He says that once you have exhausted your reasonable options, it may be safe to keep the object.

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