As a child, most of us remember using the saying “finders keepers.” Even today, many people believe if they find some really valuable item simply lying around, then there is no harm in keeping it. Georgia law, however, says differently. So, this week I’m going to outline a criminal charge that is not used very often: theft of lost or mislaid property.

Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-8-6, a person commits the offense of theft of lost or mislaid property when he comes into control of property that he knows or learns to have been lost or mislaid and appropriates that property to his own use without first taking reasonable measures to restore the property to the owner. The punishments for this crime vary based on the value of the property stolen. If the value of the property exceeded $24,999.99, then the penalty range is not less than 2 years nor more than 20 years imprisonment. If the value was at least $5000.00 but less than $25,000.00, then the penalty range is not less than 1 year nor more than 10 years imprisonment. However, the trial judge has the discretion to treat this value range as a misdemeanor. If the value range of the property is at least $1500.01 but less than $5000.00, then the sentencing range is from 1 year up to 5 years imprisonment. Again, the trial judge has the discretion to treat this one as a misdemeanor. This crime is punished as a misdemeanor if it does not fall within one of these value ranges.

There are a couple of important elements of this crime I would like to address. First, even if a person comes into possession of an item that the person does not know is stolen, that person must not keep the item if he or she later “learns” the property is lost or mislaid. This means if you find a dog roaming around without a collar and decide to keep it and later see posters requesting the return of that dog, then it would be a crime to keep that dog. At first, it appeared that the dog did not belong to anybody. However, once you learn the dog is lost then criminal intent kicks in if you keep it. Second, if you find a lost or mislaid item and take reasonable steps to return the property to its owner without success in doing so, then you will not face criminal charges if you maintain the property thereafter. Reasonable measures to restore the property likely means more than just waiting around in the parking lot for 2 or 3 minutes to see someone returns looking for the found item. The law requires that a person who finds an item put some effort into the search. My suggestion is if you stumble across something of great value that appears lost or mislaid, then turn it over to the sheriff’s office. That is the safest way to avoid ending up with criminal charges against you.

Jeffrey E. Johnston is a local attorney licensed to practice in Georgia. His practice focuses primarily on Criminal Defense and Personal Injury law. His law firm can be reached at (706) 869-8171 or you can contact him here.