If you find something, keep it.. is it theft?

The writer is a prospective law student at Oxford University.


Most of us would have heard of the recent taxi robbery, which must one of the most hilarious failed crimes in Singapore’s history:





Three youths carefully planned to rob a taxi driver. One would grab him, the other would assault him, and the third would grab the loot. That’s what they did, and it was all going well until Karma gave them a tight slap in the face.

The third youth was not very bright; all he took was a coin pouch.

It’s almost as if he walked into a DBS bank vault and left with nothing more than a brochure. The loot ended up being $5, in coins, which meant $1.66 for each of them – barely enough to take the train back home from wherever they ended up. They would have been better off picking up change off the ground.

But it doesn’t end there. One of them realised later that he left his iphone in the taxi.

You have to admit that they probably, at least for a moment, possibly after making the biggest facepalm since the release of the Singapore Tourism Board’s cheesy promotion video in April, considered going back to the cabby and exchanging the coin pouch for the iphone back.

But they did not, and the cabby to made the police report that led to their arrest.

This brings me to the point of this article – the cabby would have been better off if he did not make the report. To understand why, we need to discuss the law of property.

Most would find the rhyme “finders keepers, losers weepers” familiar. Though inaccurate, it does point out the limited rights the finder of a lost item has to keep it for him/herself.

The landmark case governing this matter is Parker v British Airways Board [1982]. Mr. Parker found a gold bracelet on the floor of the airport’s executive lounge. He handed it to the owners of the land – British Airways Board, hoping they will find the original owner, and proceeded to catch his flight. Unable to find the original owner, British Airways Board sold the bracelet for £850. Mr. Parker called a few weeks later, demanding the bracelet. He was told it had been sold, and he sued. The Court of Appeal ruled in his favour, and he was awarded £850.

The principles of law that apply are as follows: When an item is lost or misplaced, the person with the first right to the property is the original owner. If reasonable steps have been taken to find the original owner, and yet nobody steps forward, the finder of the item has the right to keep it. Only if the finder cannot be located, can the owner of the premises the item is found keep the item.

There are some notable exceptions including that – the finder cannot be a trespasser (a robber finding missing gold buried in the backyard has no right to it), the finder cannot find it in his capacity as an employee of the owner of the premises (If your gardener finds a gold watch in your backyard, it is yours, not his) and the found item must not be embedded in the property itself (a safe, embedded in the wall, found by a houseguest belongs to the owner of the property, not the finder.)

So if say, you are in a shopping mall, and you find a wallet in a toilet cubicle, don’t just leave it there – it is likely that an unscrupulous individual will steal the item (yes, taking lost property IS THEFT). Instead, bring it to the Lost and Found counter, leave your name, NRIC and contact number, and then ask the staff member to write on a piece of paper his/her name, details of the item and a signed statement to acknowledge receipt of the item. This is recommended in case of unscrupulous counter staff, or if the shopping mall denies receiving anything from you.

Do this, because if you are unlike most people who have been victims of carelessness before and therefore feel an immense sense of warmth and satisfaction with the knowledge that the poor soul who lost his wallet will once again be reunited with it, you can at least go home with the knowledge that you will get to keep the item in the unlikely but possible chance that nobody has claimed it after some time. Think of it as a “finder’s fee”, an incentive to be law-abiding and to have some initiative.

Now, returning to the story of the taxi robbers, by law, the youth who robbed the taxi driver is entitled to take his iphone back as he is the original owner.

Had the taxi driver chose not to go to the police, he could have handed the iphone to the taxi company for the youths to claim it. However, they clearly would not do so, as they would rather accept their loss than get arrested. After a reasonable time, he could request the phone back, sell it, and lawfully keep the proceeds. Assuming it was an iphone4 32GB, it would have fetched at least $200. Not bad given that he lost only $5, in coins. [1 – See note below]

The hurt and shock resulting from the robbery would exist regardless of whether he chose to claim that $195. – might as well cash out on this event.

True, arresting the youths will likely deter them from committing future crimes. However, something tells me the thought of the taxi driver laughing his way to the bank, and the unprecedented level of criminal incompetency that transpired that fateful day would serve a significant deterrent.

Two of the three youths have been sentenced to probation, much to the disappointment of existing inmates at Changi Prison who are in desperate need of some comic relief. Hopefully they this lesson would turn them away from a life of crime, not only because it’s wrong, but because it turns out they just aren’t very good at it.


[1] The taxi company (e.g. Comfort Del Gro) would have no claim over the item as they are the owner of the premises the item is found (the taxi), but not the finder. They will however, have the right if BOTH the original owner and the finder cannot be found after reasonable attempts have been made to find them.



This article and the information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. This article is offered only for general informational, educational and probably entertainment purposes.

The writer is also the founder and editor of the socio-political commentary site The Expository – www.the-expository.com







Share your thoughts!

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.