Finding an item that someone else has lost, such as money or jewelry, may seem like a stroke of luck. However, in the state of Georgia, if a person holds onto an item they have found, they could end up with a criminal charge as well.
The crime with which one could be charged is known as the theft of lost or mislaid property.
What Is Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property in Georgia?
In Georgia, a person can be charged with the theft of lost or mislaid property when they find property they know has been lost and keep it without making any reasonable effort to find the rightful owner and return it. The property could be lost or mislaid. The person who finds the property knows that it does not belong to them.
Regardless of how the person came into control of the property, if they did not make any reasonable effort to give the property back to the lawful owner, they can be charged with the crime of theft of lost or mislaid property in Georgia. Note that the law may be quite different in most other states.
Note that as long as a person takes reasonable measures to find the rightful owner and return lost or mislaid property, then the person will not face criminal charges. Unfortunately, there is no clearly defined standard for reasonable measures. A court or jury will consider whether there was any effort to find the owner and if so, what that effort was. Making no effort at all is not going to be a successful defense of the charge.
So, clearly, In Georgia, if a person has found lost or mislaid property, they want to document an effort of some kind to locate the rightful owner. The more the person does, the better.
What Qualifies as Mislaid or Lost Property?
Mislaid property is any type of property that the owner has voluntarily given up with the intent to get it back later.
For example, an owner might intentionally put some property in a place temporarily and then forget about it. Lost property is property an owner no longer has because of negligence or accident. In both situations, the property is not abandoned because the true owner has not voluntarily surrendered or given up the property, although they may have done so by mistake.
Is Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property the Same as Receiving Stolen Property?
Theft by receiving stolen property consists of accepting or purchasing property a person knows or should have known was stolen. This generally suggests that the property was obtained through larceny or false pretenses, not through the rightful owner simply misplacing it.
What Is the Penalty for Misdemeanor Theft of Mislaid Property in Georgia?
If the property involved is worth up to $1,500, then the crime is a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor in Georgia is punished by a maximum of 12 months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. If a defendant receives a jail sentence of six months or less, the judge has the authority and the discretion to allow the sentence to be served as weekend confinement or during the defendant’s non-working hours.
As with other theft crimes in Georgia, whether the crime is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depends on the value of the money or property involved in the crime. If the property is valued at less than $500, then an alleged perpetrator will be charged with misdemeanor theft of lost or mislaid property.
However, if the money or property is valued at more than $500, you will likely be facing felony charges. A judge has the discretion to deem a crime a misdemeanor, even if the money or property converted was over $500.
If the crime of theft of lost or mislaid property is charged as a felony, it comes with a prison term of no less than one year and no more than ten years. Of course, the consequences of having a felony conviction on one’s record can be more than just a term in prison or payment of a fine. A person can find it difficult to get a job or even to find housing.
Then there are possible consequences in civil law for the crime. The person who lost or mislaid the property could bring a civil action for damages against the person who found it and kept it. An award of monetary damages in a civil case could include:
- Compensatory damages which would include the value of the property and any other loss sustained as a result of the theft;
- Liquidated exemplary damages amounting to $150 or twice the value of the loss (as long as the total amount is less than $5,000);
- The costs of bringing the civil suit against the perpetrator;
Restitution damages for any loss or harm the victims suffered because of the theft.
Are There Any Defenses?
Some of the criminal defenses that might be especially helpful in a case of theft of lost or mislaid property would be the following:
- Reasonable Measures to Return the Property to the Owner: The best defense is to show through convincing evidence that the alleged perpetrator tried to find the rightful owner, but was not successful. For example, suppose a person finds a ring containing a precious gem in the dressing room of a department store in a mall. Reasonable measures could include checking to see if there is a lost and found in the store or at the mall and leaving the ring there.
- Or, the finder might ask the check-out clerk in the department if anyone who used the dressing room is still shopping in the vicinity. The finder could also notify store security to make an announcement over the intercom system of a found item of value.
- The property was not valued at more than $500: Whether the crime is treated as a misdemeanor or a felony depends on the value of the property at issue. One of the accepted ways to establish the value of the property is to assess its fair market cash value.
- Testimony by the owner about the purchase price alone is not enough to establish the value of the property. Also, the amount that the owner paid is not sufficient to determine whether the crime should be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony. If the value of the property is a significant issue in a case, it is important to have a qualified expert testify as to its fair market cash value.
- Innocence: Another possible defense is to claim innocence of the crime. This would be possible if the alleged perpetrator has an alibi or witness testimony showing that they could not possibly have committed the crime, because they were somewhere else entirely when the crime was committed.
It is not a defense for the alleged perpetrator to claim that they waited a reasonable amount of time before they began using the property as their own: Simply waiting for time to pass is not taking reasonable measures to return the item to the rightful owner.
Likewise, an alleged perpetrator claiming that they did not know the property was lost or mislaid, because ignorance of the fact that the property was lost is not a valid defense. Simply refusing to acknowledge that the property was lost or mislaid when a reasonable person would have known that it was will lead to a conviction.
Should I Contact a Lawyer?
You should most definitely consult an experienced Georgia criminal defense lawyer immediately if you have been accused of stealing property that was lost or mislaid. A lawyer in Georgia can represent you in court and advise you of possible defenses you can use to fight the charge.