Welcome to the new FindLaw series, "If I Find," where we'll discuss the rule of finders keepers as it applies to different topics. We hope you'll check back regularly!
If you've ever lost a cell phone, raise your hand. I know I have. If you find a lost cell phone, give it back!
Finding a lost cell phone, especially a shiny new iPhone, can seem like hitting a jackpot. Even if you don't need it, you could probably sell it for a lot of money (unless the phone has a new smartphone kill switch).
However, can you legally keep it?
Common Law Lost Property Rule
At common law, you may be able to keep the phone if it was lost property but not if it was mislaid property. If this sounds like a weird distinction to you, you're not alone.
Lost property is property that was unintentionally left behind by its owner. Mislaid property is property that was intentionally put down by its owner and then forgotten. So, a wallet that falls out of a back pocket is lost property, and a wallet set on a table and forgotten when the owner left is mislaid property.
Common law allows you to keep lost property until the owner comes back to claim it. If the property is mislaid, then the owner of the property where it was found gets to keep the property. For example, a customer leaves his wallet on the table after dinner. Since, it's mislaid property, the restaurant owner gets to keep the wallet, just in case the customer comes back to look for it.
Current State Laws
Unless your state follows common law, it may have its own laws regarding lost and found property.
In California, if you find lost property and you know who it may belong to or can easily find out, you have to take reasonable steps to return the item to the owner. Failing to do so is theft.
California Civil Code section 2080.1 requires that anybody who finds property worth at least $100 must first turn the property over to the police department. If the owner of the property does not claim it within 90 days, then the finder can keep it.
If your state has similar laws, you likely can keep the phone you found as long as you turn it in to the police first.