Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail accurately likened the crime of Theft by Finding to something that would be the subject matter of a Monty Python sketch. (Since we’re doing a brief nod to Monty Python, I think it appropriate to note that the journalist’s name – were it subjected to a number of English speaking countries’ slang terms, idioms and abbreviations – could be translated to Penis Smallpenis.)
Basically theft by finding is when you find something that seems abandoned, and you keep it. Technically the unwritten rule of ‘finders keepers’ becomes larceny when you don’t make an effort to discover if an item is lost or temporarily unattended, or make an effort to find its rightful owner.
You can see where the law makers were going with this.
“Oy Skipper, what’s that shiny thing over there. Bloody hell is that a gold ring? Hand it over!”
“Er… Cyril, we should take that to the police station. Or at the very least we should go inside this church and ask the best man at the wedding if he’s missing anything.”
If Cyril can’t be persuaded to take steps to returning the ring, then there’s probably quite a few of us who would hold up Mr Pointy Finger, and say “Tut, tut, shame on you that’s stealing.” Although not to Cyril’s face, because he is a big man with a lot of scars… mostly on his knuckles.
Hence the law-makers make a fair and reasonable law to say, “No Cyril, bad boy, that doesn’t belong to you, and you will spend 3-7 years in the naughty chair if you don’t give it back.“
However, it is a law which seems to be frequently misinterpreted. The cynical among us might say deliberately so.
For example a woman in the UK took about $400 worth of food from a dumpster outside a supermarket. The food was part of a huge amount that had to be thrown out after a power cut turned off refrigerators and freezers in the store. One of the store employees saw her, she was arrested, had her home searched, and basically the outcome was six months incarceration or $7500 fine.
Er..food was in the rubbish bin. Clearly, it had been abandoned.
On a side note, dumpster diving, or freeganism, is gaining popularity over here, so much so that certain food chains are now enclosing the entrance from their stores to the dumpsters, so people can’t get free food. (The theory goes that stores will lose a colossal amount of money if folks can get out of date produce without paying for it. I suspect they might be exaggerating just a teensy bit. I think that perhaps there will still be lots of people who elect to go into the store and pay for food rather than scrapping in a dumpster with a mob of like-minded freegans.)
Having said that, there are other supermarkets have a completely different ethos, some places convert unused produce into biofuel. In France it’s recently been made law that all supermarkets have to donate unsold food to charity, or to pass it on for animal feed, compost or bioenergy sources.
Back to theft by finding, there have been other cases where items have been put out in rubbish bins on the side of the street for collection, which have then been taken by some strong armed personage, and that person of the strong arms has been charged with a criminal offense. How silly’s that? Scavenging on the street is how the majority of people in LA furnish their homes! Any night of the week you can drive around a bunch of neighbourhoods and find yourself a sofa, dining table and chairs, maybe a little coffee table and a book case. (Don’t try the overly ritzy areas like Beverly Hills, you won’t find anything, but maybe try some of the beach areas, and then around the studios, and in the Valley – find someone with a van or an SUV to help you.)
What’s more scary though is that say you do find something, like a pet for instance, and you call shelters, and you put up notices, and you tell the police, generally making a great effort to find the owner, but nothing comes of it, and in the meantime you get attached to the pet so you continue to care for it. Well, you could still be charged with theft by finding, because a prosecutor can make a case that it was obvious the pet already had an owner, and then you would get a reputation as a petnapper… which sounds more like a case of cuddling up for a quick snooze with a Chihuahua rather than hustling Tinkerbell into the back of a unlicensed sedan, but still – not a reputation one wishes to acquire.
Interestingly enough, theft by finding, does not cover non-physical items. Say for example, JK Rowling had left behind a Harry Potter manuscript on the train, and someone had found it and kept it, they could be prosecuted for stealing the paper and the ink with which the words were written, however they couldn’t be prosecuted for stealing the actual ‘story’. Not until they wrote it down and tried to pass it off as their own and then there would be a HUGE plagiarism lawsuit.
It’s a sensible law with some dangerous loopholes, and there are hundreds more like it. It would be a cause for worry if we didn’t all have the bigger worry hanging over our heads that Donald Trump has announced he’s running for president.