Can you keep money that you find in the street?

An experiment by TVNZ reveals how most of us would keep a fifty dollar note if we found it in the street. Most of us would keep a $100 dollar note too. Once we get to $200, though, a few people say they'd do the decent thing and hand the money in. But did you know there are legal consequences of keeping money you find on the street?

Being careless doesn't affect people's property rights. Section 219 of the New Zealand Crimes Act says keeping lost money dishonestly deprives the rightful owner of their property, so it isn't a good idea. In New Zealand the police are handed around $327,000 a year in lost cash, only £300,000 of which is claimed. Around twenty thousand a year isn't claimed, and so far the total unclaimed adds up to $194,000.

Interestingly, the New Zealand police make it quite difficult for people who find lost money to claim it for themselves when the owner doesn't turn up to collect it. One woman, who handed in a $50 note she'd found in the street, was told she'd have to wait two months to claim it. Three months later her claim was still being handled. Then the matter was handed to a different police officer. Eventually she became suspicious and called the popular consumer TV show, Fair Go 

The reason for the delay? The police were busy, and claims have to be signed off by two senior officers. Things do get stuck, especially when there's 'only' fifty dollars at stake. Five months later the woman finally received the money she'd handed in, that nobody else had claimed.

The offence of 'theft by finding'

In the UK there's an offence called 'theft by finding'. If you find money on the street and don't hand it in to the police or try to find its owner, you're guilty of theft. If there's no way to establish who the money belongs to, it's still an offence under the Theft Act 1968, where a person is guilty of theft if they “dishonestly appropriate property [including cash] belonging to another”.

In fact any lost property continues to belong to the owner unless it has been genuinely abandoned by the original owner. Just because money has been dropped it hasn't necessarily been abandoned. But at the end of the day the matter rests on whether or not the owner of the cash was impossible to trace, or you had made 'reasonable' efforts to find them, for example by telling the police.

How about Malaysia?

In Malaysia it's a matter for the law of 'conversion', which means treating something as if it’s yours when it actually belongs to someone else. If you find abandoned money on the street, you're legally OK to keep it as long as you can't find the owner. But if the money was obviously dropped by someone, you saw them drop it and you keep it, or you keep someone's lost wallet, you could be in trouble with the law.

The law of conversion in Malaysia is covered under Section 403 of the Penal Code. It is usually treated as a tort, a civil matter, but it can become a criminal case if it's serious enough. The actual legal wording is complicated, but it means this: if you find something that doesn’t belong to you, you have to return it to the owner, or try finding the owner, before you can legally keep it. A lost wallet probably contains the person's Identity Card and other items that identify them. If you find a lost wallet it’s your legal duty to return it to the owner, because they're easy to identify.

What if you find a wallet that doesn’t contain any identification? Section 403 of the Penal Code says you must use 'reasonable means' to find the owner. You could ask people or post your find on social media, for example, but you don't have to launch a countrywide campaign! 'Reasonable' means different things in different circumstances.

It's almost always best to simply hand the wallet in to the police. And it's sensible to make sure there’s a record of you having found money, so you can't be accused of trying to keep it for yourself.