We settled a particularly difficult case yesterday. Our 12-year old neighbor Christian found a Superball (remember those?) in the leaf-covered grass near his house. He was busy tormenting his little sister Lexia with it – something at which 12-year old boys are especially adept – when he wondered whether he could keep his find or he’d have to “give it back.”
We asked “Give it back to whom?”
He shrugged, having no idea who the owner had once been. His situation reminded us of a sad story a few years ago about a contractor who found a wad of money in the walls of a house he was fixing up for a new owner. The contractor and the owner and — finally — the descendants of a prior owner — all became embroiled in litigation, and in the end, the lawyers got virtually all of it. Shades of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce!
Lucky for Christian, we knew what Ohio law had to say about “treasure troves,” those little bundles of cash, jewelry, art or old Hostess products that people occasionally stumble over. It turns out that the answer turns on whether the property is lost, abandoned, stolen, or mislaid. If it’s lost or abandoned, it turns out, Christian’s little sister was right in the advice she gave him: finders keepers.
In today’s case, a very fortunate cop found thousands of gold and silver coins scattered on a city street at 4 a.m. He picked them up, and then, being a dutiful cop, turned them in. The owner never stepped forward — and we bet there’s a story in that — so after about a year, the police officer sued for ownership.
The City opposed him, arguing that the money was located on its street and the policeman was on the City’s time clock when he found them. None of that mattered, the Court said. All that counted was that the lost or abandoned property was found by Officer Baker, who thus had ownership rights superior to anyone other than the rightful owner.
Our advice to Christian, then, was the Superball was probably lost property, because who’d willingly abandon such a cool ball? It was his to enjoy unless the true owner stepped forward.
Sadly, our legal efforts were for naught. Shortly after our sage advice to him, Christian lost the Superball on an especially high bounce into a nearby cornfield. Losers weepers.
Baker v. City of West Carrollton, Case No. 9904 (Ct.App. Montgomery Co., August 7, 1986) (unpublished), 1986 WL 8615. Police officer Charles Baker found a large number of gold and silver coins scattered on a West Carrollton public street. After reporting the find, he and city employees picked up 6,871 gold and silver coins and placed them in the police property room. When no one stepped forward to claim them, Baker sued to establish his right to the money. The City counterclaimed, arguing that the money was found on its street, and Baker was its employee, so the money belonged to it. The trial court agreed, and awarded the money to the City. Baker appealed.
Held: The money belonged to Baker, not the City. The money was considered to be “lost” or “abandoned” property. Under Ohio common law, a finder who takes possession of “abandoned property” acquires absolute title. A finder of a lost article, although he does not by such finding acquire an absolute property or ownership, has a prior claim thereto as against everyone except the actual owner. The rule is practically absolute and is not affected by special circumstances of the character of the thing found, the place of finding, or the relation of the finder to the third person, even where the finder is the employee of the owner of the premises.
At common law a finder who takes possession of lost property has a duty to protect the property; to seek the true owner, and to return the property to the true owner on demand. The state had no right to found property as against the finder. Although Ohio law governs disposition of lost or abandoned property by police departments, the law requires the property to be turned over to persons with a right of possession, and Ohio courts have held that a finder of lost property which is unclaimed by the true owner is a person “entitled to possession of property” under that law. Officer Baker was such a person.
West Carrollton argued that since Baker is a police officer he should not receive a reward for performing his duty. The Court agreed that rewards for police officers’ performance of their duties aren’t appropriate, but it said that the City’s award analogy was strained. It held that Baker’s primary duty was to the true owner of the coins, and he got no reward for that.
The Ohio Supreme Court later upheld the decision. Now, if those Justices can just help Christian search the cornfield.
– Tom Root