In Concord, Pa., a few years ago, according to the Delaware County Daily Times, "State police said a 74-year-old man lost a large sum of money in a purple Crown Royal whiskey bag Monday morning."
There followed a spirited comment section in which some people claimed "finders keepers" as the law of the land, while others berated them for suggesting that the playground rule is actually the law. This is one of those old sayings that I have always meant to track down to see if it actually represents what the law is. What I found is that it is relatively true, at least in Pennsylvania, if you are dealing with "lost" or abandoned property.
Where to begin on this subject? In law school, one section of our class spent the first month talking about a case of two hunters finding a dead fox in the woods. Who owns it? The one who shot it or the one who found it first? The discussion goes to the basic meaning of what "property" is.
In the days of the cave man, if you had possession of the item, then very likely it was your property, as long as you could defend yourself against those who would show up in your face and disagree. Eventually came rules to try to resolve those situations without beating each other over the heads with clubs: the law.
In English common law, a distinction was made between property lying above ground and beneath the ground. If property was lost above the ground—lost by the true owner or abandoned—then the finder was entitled to keep the item. The representative case given in my law school textbook was a 1722 incident where a boy found jewels while cleaning out a chimney. A nearby jeweler claimed them as his. The court ruled that the boy had a right to them against anyone but the rightful owner.
If the rightful owner can prove that the lost property is his, then the property is no longer "lost". The finder is not even entitled to a reward. But if what was found was a trunk full of jewels buried beneath the surface of the earth, then the property was called "treasure trove". And who owned it? The finder, the owner of the land, or the King?
In different parts of the world, and at different times in history, all of these answers have been true. In England over the last 500 years or so, the answer is the King. This practice has to some degree transferred over to the United States in our laws concerning escheat. Property in certain categories, that has been left for too long in an old bank account, or securities that have gone unclaimed, are considered abandoned and the holder is required to send the property off to the state. If you are the true owner, you can always reclaim it, but otherwise, the King still gets to keep it.
In Pennsylvania today, the state of the law is that "the finder of lost property has a valid claim to the same against all the world, except the true owner," and that "the finder of money has title to it against all the world except the true owner.”
Other cases suggest that "the place in which a lost article is found does not constitute any exception to the general rule of law that the finder is entitled to it as against all persons except the owner. The right of the finder depends on his honesty and entire fairness of conduct. The circumstances attending the finding must manifest good faith on his part. There must be no reason to suspect that the owner was known to him or might have been ascertained by proper diligence."
Property is not "lost" when you reach into an unlocked car and "find" it. Property is not lost when you know who the owner is, or know where to find him. If you are following an armored car, like poor Joey Coyle in 1981, and a million dollars falls out, the property is not lost. The law requires the finder to have a minimum of integrity and interest in the true owner. And of course, what would the law be without exceptions?
If the finder is a policeman in the course of performing his duties, then he is an agent of the state, and must turn it over to the state. If the true owner does not turn up, then this property is one of those categories of property that escheats to the state.
So, where does that leave us? If you are walking in Concord Township and find a purple Crown Royal whiskey bag containing a lot of money, can you keep it? If you are a policeman on duty, then no. If you have read The Delaware County Times article or this one, then no, you are on notice and you can find the rightful owner with relative ease.
But if a year from now someone is walking in the area and bends down and picks up a weathered purple bag containing a large sum of money, that seems to have been lost in the field, then most likely yes, he can keep it. Finders keepers is still the law of Pennsylvania.