Imagine that you're sitting in Starbucks when you notice that the woman at the table adjacent to you has left behind a diamond brooch. It’s clearly a valuable item and, before you know it, a new patron will seat themselves at that table, with an even closer view of the heirloom. Will that person simply pick it up and walk out of the door? What if you intervene—should you then turn it over to the Starbucks shop owners (for safekeeping)? What if, in your estimation, entrusting it to Starbucks management would be similarly unlikely to ensure the return of the property to the original owner?

Weighing these perhaps unsatisfactory options, should you retrieve the brooch and hold it, waiting for the woman to return? If you do so and wait half an hour for her return without success, perhaps you should just keep the brooch for yourself? If you do, would you face potential civil or criminal repercussions?

This article explores the contours of lost and abandoned property law, and your rights and options under different scenarios.

The Starbucks Example

The diamond brooch left on the table in the example above would likely be deemed “lost” property as a matter of law. To illustrate this determination and its implications, it’s important to understand the three major categories of "owner-separated" property. Note: none of these three categories consider the separate category of stolen property. As a matter of law, stolen property must—it goes without saying—be returned to the rightful owner.

1. Lost Property. Lost property is property that is unintentionally separated from its true owner. Thus, the key to property being classified as “lost” is whether the owner intended, even for a moment, to be separated from their property. Dropping one’s wallet in the street would be a classic example of “losing” one’s property. We would likely conclude that the diamond brooch on the Starbucks table was “lost” because it is unlikely that its owner (the woman described above) actually intended to leave the brooch on the coffee shop table, even for a moment.

2. Mislaid property. Thus, “lost” property is to be distinguished from the next category, “mislaid” property, in that property will be deemed mislaid or misplaced if it is found in a location where the true owner likely did intend to leave the item—but only temporarily, and merely forgot to pick it up again. An example would be neglecting to pick up your dress shoes at the bowling alley after finishing up a bowling session there. As we will see, this distinction in intent has implications for what actions are required, as a matter of law, of the finder of the property (whether in the coffee shop or elsewhere).

3. Abandoned property. Property is generally deemed to have been abandoned if it is found in such a condition that it is apparent that the property’s true owner has no intention of returning to claim it. A 10-year-old desktop computer could well be abandoned by its owner. The owner might choose to leave the computer outside the front entrance to their apartment building instead of properly disposing of it. That the owner intended to abandon it could be evidenced by the fact that it was left outside the building without being packaged in any box, bag or container.

Actions that Are Required of the “Finder”

Mislaid property. Under common law principles, the finder of a misplaced object has a duty to deliver the property to the owner of the premises at which the property was found, on the theory that when the true owner realizes their mistake, they are likely to return to that location to search for the item.

Thus, if our example above had involved not a brooch left in Starbucks, but a laptop left in a library cubicle, the obligation at law on the finder of the laptop would be to deliver the laptop to library management.

Lost Property. The legal requirements incumbent on a finder of lost property vary by state. In general, the applicable state-level requirements obligate the finder to report the found property to state authorities.

In Illinois, for example, the legal requirements that apply to lost property vary depending on the property value. For property worth less than $100, the finder of the property is supposed to “advertise” their find “at the courthouse.” If nobody claims the property within six months, a judge can declare the property finder the lawful owner.

For property worth more than $100, the procedure in Illinois is for the property finder to file an affidavit with the Circuit Clerk within five days of the find, describing what was found, where and when. The County Clerk is required to publish, in a local paper, a notice that the owner of the lost property has one year to claim it. If nobody does claim the property, a judge can declare the finder the new, lawful owner.

The risks associated with failing to follow the state-required procedure necessarily vary depending on the value of the property involved. In general, the greater the value of the property, the greater the risk to you as the finder if you fail to follow the required state-level reporting procedures.

Abandoned property. In general, abandoned property becomes the property of the finder. However, exceptions to this general rule do exist. Specifically, in many states, abandoned vehicles—such as automobiles and aircraft—are the property of the state. Under the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, any shipwreck that lies embedded in a state's submerged lands (i.e. underwater) is the property of that state and subject to that state's jurisdiction if determined as being abandoned. So, don’t go putting on your scuba gear just yet in the hopes of claiming long-lost treasure—unless you’re willing to venture out into international waters to stake your claim.

Other Doctrines

A "treasure trove" consists of coins, currency or gemstones deliberately hidden somewhere on the premises (such as in the attic of a house), and done so sufficiently long ago that the original owner can be considered dead or unknown. The general rule is that the rightful owner of a treasure trove is the new owner of the property—in this example, the new homeowner. Thus, if you buy a three-bedroom house and discover Revolutionary War-era coins wrapped up in a centuries-old handkerchief in the attic, pop out the bubbly—you can hold, sell or bequest your newfound discovery.

However, there is a conflict at law among the states as to whether a third party—such as an independent contractor hired to perform work in a new homeowner’s attic—can lay claim to a treasure trove discovered by the independent contractor.

This article is intended to provide a general overview of the circumstances and requirements described. It is not a substitute for reference to applicable state law.