Lost, mislaid, and abandoned property is a category of the common law of property which deals with personal property which has left the possession of its rightful owner without having directly entered the possession of another person.
A property can be considered lost, mislaid or abandoned depending on the circumstances under which it is found by the next party who obtains its possession. The rights of a finder of such property are determined in part by the status in which it is found. Because these classifications have developed under the ancient and often archaic common law of England, they turn on nuanced distinctions. The general rule attaching to the three types of property may be summarized as: A finder of property acquires no rights in mislaid property, is entitled to possession of lost property against everyone except the true owner, and is entitled to keep abandoned property. This rule varies by jurisdiction.
Property is generally deemed to have been lost if it is found in a place where the true owner likely did not intend to set it down, and where it is not likely to be found by the true owner. At common law, the finder of a lost item could claim the right to possess the item against any person except the true owner or any previous possessors.
The underlying policy goals to these distinctions are to (hopefully) see that the property is returned to its true original owner, or "title owner." Most jurisdictions have now enacted statutes requiring that the finder of lost property turn it in to the proper authorities; if the true owner does not arrive to claim the property within a certain period of time, the property is returned to the finder as his own, or is disposed of. In Britain, many public businesses have a lost property desk, which in the United States would be called a lost and found.
Many exceptions may be applied at common law to the rule that the first finder of lost property has a superior claim of right over any other person except the previous owner. For example, a trespasser's claim to lost property which he finds while trespassing is generally inferior to the claim of the respective landowner. As a corollary to this exception, a landowner has superior claim over a find made within the non-public areas of his property, so if a customer finds lost property in the public area of a store, the customer has superior claim to the lost property over that of the store-owner, but if the customer finds the lost property in the non-public area of that store, such as an area marked "Employees Only," the store-owner will have superior claim, as the customer was trespassing when he found it.
The status of finders as employees or tenants of the landowner complicates matters, because employees and tenants have legitimate access to non-public areas of a landowner's property that others would not, without trespassing. Employees and tenants, however, still usually lose superior claim over lost property to their employers or landlords if the property is found within the scope of their employment, or outside the actual leased area, respectively. For example, if the lost property is found by a tenant inside the walls of his leasehold, or by an employee embedded within the soil of an estate owned by his employer, the landowner (as employer or landlord) of the property where it was found usually has a superior claim of right over that of the finder. However, this is not always the case, as a long-term tenant who finds lost property within the leased area of his leasehold may have a superior claim over that of his landlord (especially if the landlord has never been to the property). While employers usually have a superior claim over lost property found by their employees, exceptions to this exist as well, as modern law sometimes grants the employee superior claim if turning over lost property to his employer is not part of his job description (such as if the employee is an interior decorator).
Property is generally deemed to have been mislaid or misplaced if it is found in a place where the true owner likely did intend to set it, but then simply forgot to pick it up again. For example, a wallet found in a shop lying on a counter near a cash register will likely be deemed misplaced rather than lost. Under common law principles, the finder of a misplaced object has a duty to turn it over to the owner of the premises, on the theory that the true owner is likely to return to that location to search for his misplaced item. If the true owner does not return within a reasonable time (which varies considerably depending on the circumstances), the property becomes that of the owner of the premises.
Treasure trove is property that consists of coins or currency hidden by the owner. To be considered treasure trove and not mislaid property, the property must have been deliberately hidden or concealed, and sufficiently long ago that the original owner can be considered dead or not discoverable. For example, under English law, 100 Roman coins found buried in a chest would be treasure trove; however, 100 Roman coins which were lost over time in a marketplace would not be treasure trove, as they were not deliberately hidden as a single hoard.
Under American common law, treasure trove belongs to the finder unless the original owner reclaims. Some states have rejected the American common law and hold that treasure trove belongs to the owner of the property in which the treasure trove was found. These courts reason that the American common law rule encourages trespass.
Under the traditional English common law, treasure trove belongs to the Crown, though the finder may be paid a reward.
Maui Police Department Sticker affixed to Abandoned Cars.
Property is generally deemed to have been abandoned if it is found in a place where the true owner likely intended to leave it, but is in such a condition that it is apparent that the true owner has no intention of returning to claim the item. Abandoned property generally becomes the property of whoever should find it and take possession of it first, although some states have enacted statutes under which certain kinds of abandoned property – usually cars, wrecked ships and wrecked aircraft – escheat, meaning that they become the property of the state.
In the United States, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws sought to address the problems arising from these types of property through provisions of the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act. The act was first drafted and promulgated in 1981 and was revised in 1995. The act specifically focuses on the problem of unclaimed money in bank accounts and corporate coffers, and the escheatment thereof.
As a result of the Act, each state operates an Unclaimed Property fund in which the proceeds from abandoned bank accounts, unpresented checks, etc. are to be turned over to the state after a specified period of time. Depending on state law, the money may be held either in perpetuity (i.e., the funds never escheat to the state; an example would be Texas), or after a long period of time (whereby it is presumed that the owner is deceased with no heirs) the funds will escheat to the state. Due to the increasing mobility of the population, the vast majority of states (and at least two Canadian provinces) have joined together to operate Missing Money.com, a searchable database which lists unclaimed funds for several states.
A similar problem has developed with respect to orphan works, artistic or literary works for which a copyright is in effect, but for whom the copyright owner cannot be found.