But I Just Stumbled Upon It! How Can That Be Theft?

So, you and a buddy are just chit chatting while walking down a street, and lo and behold! you stumble upon a $50 bill. You know it’s not yours, but hey, it’s your lucky day! So, you pocket the money, then happily skip down to a nearby restaurant and splurge, spending it all. Then you post the whole lucky day experience on Facebook.

Or, could it have been your unlucky day? Jack finds out about all of this by reading your Facebook post. He confronts you and says, “Hey, I accidentally dropped that bill while I walking with my girlfriend, Jane, and counting my money. We both looked for it, but could not find it. I can easily prove this. You should have put up some sort of lost and found sign. You should have used some reasonable effort to get the money to its rightful owner, me, but you didn’t! I’m calling the police because you are a thief!”

Is Jack right? Did you steal his “lost” or “mislaid” property? Or is this just a case of “finders keepers losers weepers?”

Here is what the Utah law says (Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-407.): A person commits theft when: (1) He obtains property of another which he knows to have been lost or mislaid, or to have been delivered under a mistake as to the identity of the recipient or as to the nature or amount of the property, without taking reasonable measures to return it to the owner; and (2) He has the purpose to deprive the owner of the property when he obtains the property or at any time prior to taking the measures designated in paragraph (1).

In short, if you don’t make a reasonable effort to find the owner of the money, and to return it to him, you could be criminally charged. In other words, this could be a case of finder’s weepers, not loser’s weepers.

Consider this actual Utah case:
A Utah theft inspector was notified of a potential cattle rustling case, so he and another went to check it out. After arriving at a neighbor’s property, one of them pulled out a pair of binoculars to view cattle that were on the suspect’s land (keep in mind a cow can be worth thousands of dollars, just like car). Apparently, one of the calves in the field did not have the suspect’s “ownership markings” on it, but instead “bore those of another cattle rancher.”

The cops entered the field and felt they established that the calf did not belong to the defendant. Then, they fell upon two additional cows with ownership markings that indicated that they also belonged to a different cattle rancher.

Later on, an inspector discovered “that an additional lost cow bearing the brand of yet another rancher was in the defendant’s herd, and that he had put his own ear tag on the cow.” At various times, the inspector spoke with the defendants and asked how the cattle could have possibly ended up on the defendant’s property. It was claimed that the defendant gave the inspector a bunch of differing reasons as to why the cattle “from three separate owners were on his property,” but he admitted they belonged to other cattle ranchers.

The State of Utah charged the man with three counts of “theft of lost property.” He subsequently pleaded guilty.

In other words, the Court looks at what the employee actually is, not what the employer says he is.

If you’re a rancher, and you suddenly notice that you have some extra cows on your land, eyebrows will be raised, and if you simply keep the cows, you will certainly have some explaining to do once that is discovered. In a case like this, you can imagine the questions that one would be asked: Why didn’t you check with your neighbors if they were missing a cow? Why didn’t you post a lost and found sign at the local store?

You may wonder if the State could legally use field glasses to spy on the rancher’s herd. Here is what the Utah court said: “Quite simply, an open field, unlike the curtilage of a home, is not one of those protected areas enumerated in the Fourth Amendment.”

The said that “open fields remain unprotected under the Fourth Amendment, even when fenced, or posted with “no trespassing” signs, and regardless of plain view.” The defendants didn’t argue that the property where the stolen cattle were found was something other than an open field. As a result, the trial court correctly concluded that “there was not a search in this case proscribed by the Fourth Amendment because … the acts of the brand inspectors occurred in an open field where [the defendant] had no reasonable expectation of privacy.” Thus, the trial court properly denied Lamb’s motion to throw out the evidence. State v. Lamb, 2013 UT App 5, ¶¶ 17-18, 294 P.3d 639, 645


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