Past posts on this blog detailed the manner in which Colorado defines theft. You likely never see any scenario in which you would intentionally take another’s property. Yet could there be a scenario in which your unintentional actions might actually qualify as criminal activity?
Say that you come across an item or piece of lost property. When might you keeping the item be legally justified, and when might it qualify as “theft by finding?”
Colorado’s definition of theft
Per Section 18-4-401 of Colorado’s Criminal Code, one way to define theft would be if you knowingly use or conceal a “thing of value in such manner as to deprive the other person permanently of its use or benefit.” How might retaining apparently lost property fall under this definition? The answer comes in from distinguishing between lost and mislaid property.
Lost property is that property that is obviously lost; the owner unknowingly dropped, misplaced or left it in an area without knowing. Mislaid property is an item that the owner was likely using and then simply forgot it. The differentiating factor in these two definitions is that in the latter case, the owner might be able to recall where they left the item (and thus return to reclaim it).
Dealing with mislaid property
In any case of lost property, if you can reasonably find the owner, you should. Yet if property is obviously mislaid, handing it over to the owner of the property in which you found it absolves you from any idea of criminal intent, and may still leave the door open to lawfully claiming it if its owner never returns to find it. The same holds true if you turn it over to law enforcement authorities having jurisdiction over the area where you found it.