“If there is one characteristic that defines me, it is my belief in human dignity, my belief that my client's life is just as important now as it was on the day they were born.” - Michael Guisti

Tap to Call (888) 478-8999
Our Legal Team Is Standing By
Home blog Theft Crimes Yes, You Have to Return the Wallet You Found on the Ground

Yes, You Have to Return the Wallet You Found on the Ground

By Michael Guisti on November 12, 2020

Given how often each of us loses our keys or phones in our own homes, it is just as easy to lose something at a shop, café, or bar around Orange County. Who hasn’t had to ask a cashier or manager to check the lost and found? But on the opposite side of this issue is what you should do when you find lost property. While you may think of the children’s saying “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers” when you find a random wallet or phone on the ground, you do have a legal responsibility to contact the owner.

Is It Illegal to Keep Lost Property?

There are two situations where you can be charged for keeping someone else’s property. For one, if you purchased or received stolen property that you knew belonged to someone else, then you can be charged with California Penal Code 496. This can include property you purchased from a friend, family member, second-hand dealer, or even at a swap meet, so long as you actually knew it was stolen from someone else.

But the other matter that most people are not aware of is lost property. Under California Penal Code 485, if you find property that was lost by the original owner, you are legally obligated to return it to the owner, if possible. If you make no effort to return the property and keep it for yourself, then you could face either misdemeanor or felony theft charges.

The key difference between your charges will be the value of the property. If you kept a piece of property valued at $950 or less, then you can be charged with misdemeanor petty theft, which can result in:

  • Up to six months in a county jail
  • Return of the property or restitution to the owner
  • Probation

In turn, if the property was worth more than $950, then you can be charged with grand theft. In Orange County, grand theft is a wobbler, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. Misdemeanor grand theft can lengthen a petty theft sentence to up to one year in jail, while felony grand theft results in:

  • Up 16 months, two, or three years in a state prison
  • Return of the property or restitution to the owner
  • Felony probation

Rules for Returning Lost Property

To be charged with keeping lost property, the prosecution would have to prove that:

  • You found lost property that you knew did not belong to you;
  • You had the opportunity or ability to return it to the owner; and
  • You made no effort to return it to the owner.

Charges in these cases are based on the concept that you could reasonably return the lost property to the owner. This could mean that a wallet or purse contained the owner’s contact information, that you knew the owner, or that you knew where to leave the property so that the owner could find it.

In some instances, this can be as simple as dropping it off at a local business. For example, say you find a cell phone outside a bar. Given that most phones are screen locked and there is no legal way for you to access the owner’s contacts, business, or home address, you could give the phone to the bar’s manager to hold onto in case the original owner comes back. Alternatively, if you noticed someone left their laptop at a café, you should immediately tell the staff. Instead, if you took the laptop and put it in your own bag, then you could be charged with theft.

However, if there was no reasonable way for you to return the property, then you cannot be charged with theft for keeping it. In addition, if you had no intention of keeping the property and were trying to find the owner, such as looking them up online or checking with local business owners, then you would also be innocent of theft.

Sadly, the police or owner may not see it that way. It is not uncommon for owners to get angry or frustrated when they lose an expensive bag, jacket, or phone, leading to them lashing out at people trying to help. You may end up being accused and arrested for theft without even getting to state your side of the story.

If you or someone you love has been accused of keeping lost property, you should immediately contact the OC theft crimes defense attorney at Law Office of Michael L. Guisti. Our founding attorney has more than two decades of experience defending clients throughout Orange County and having charges reduced or dropped. Reaching out to our firm may be your best option – otherwise, you may face an uncertain future and serious jail time. To get started on your case, schedule a free consultation by calling our office at (714) 530-9690 or toll-free at (888) 478-8999.

Related Articles

Posted in: Theft Crimes

Whether you're facing a felony or a misdemeanor, don't risk a conviction. Act quickly to redeem your reputation and protect your record by consulting with our Orange County criminal defense lawyer. Call today to schedule your free consultation.

(714) 530-9690

Payment options available:

Payment options available:


Read Our Important Announcement About COVID-19

Dear valued clients, due to the COVID-19 virus and out of respect for the community, our office is offering our services remotely via phone and video. Please call or email us through our web contact form and we would be happy to discuss your case. Watch Michael L. Guisti's COVID-19 Public Service Announcement.

Schedule My Consultation