November 01, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
On Saturday, Sept. 13, at around 10 in the morning, June was purchasing gasoline at a Brookside Market service station close to her home in Bakersfield. Walking back into the store for change, she found a customer’s wallet right outside the door.
“I took it immediately to the clerk, and told him that we needed to locate the owner. I was worried that someone either did not know he had lost a wallet, or was madly trying to find out where he could have lost it,” she told me.
“We looked for a phone number, but found none. But what we did find could easily become the basis of identity theft: Social Security number, auto and health insurance cards, credit cards, driver’s license and cash. The clerk told me not to worry, that he would take care of the matter, and do what he could to return the wallet to its owner,” June said.
“I checked back several hours later as I wondered if they were doing anything at all to locate David. I just had a bad feeling, and felt both an obligation and desire to help get that wallet returned,” she added.
June is a retired elementary school teacher and reads You and the Law online. She reached me on my cell phone at about 3 p.m.
We would soon both learn that her fears were completely justified. Without knowing it, she had become legally responsible for whatever happened to David’s wallet, and possibly for expenses incurred in preventing identity theft.
A duty to find the owner
If you rent a car and find a ten dollar bill in the glove box, no one would seriously deny your right to keep it. But, find a bag inside the trunk containing thousands of dollars, while tempting, few people would seriously believe the money was theirs to keep without first notifying law enforcement.
The old saying, “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers,” makes sense occasionally, but not in that circumstance.
Funny thing is, at one time, “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers” really was the law! Where it was felt something was unowned or abandoned, whoever found it could claim ownership. However, in the mid 1800’s courts no longer felt this was a valid legal theory.
Judges began to ask common sense questions:
How do we know if the item was abandoned — just thrown away — or lost? Misplaced? Does the “owner” want it back, or given up all rights to possession? And, if its return is desired, can ownership be demonstrated? Today, all states have laws which require finders of “lost” property take certain steps before being allowed to keep what they’ve found.
If you have Internet access, it worth looking at California Civil Code Section 2080, which describes our legal duties when finding lost property.
It’s important to understand there is no legal obligation “to take charge,” of what you have found. So, June did not have to pick up that wallet and give it to a clerk at the Brookside Market. But since they both “took charge” of the wallet, then Civil Code Section 2080 created a legal obligation of attempting to inform the owner that his wallet had been found and to do this within a reasonable time.
In this situation “reasonable” required prompt action. Not in a few hours, not tomorrow, but making an attempt as rapidly as possible.
“Today, with the risk of identify theft so great, I can easily imagine that poor guy going crazy, trying to find his wallet, and probably canceling credit cards, ATM cards, making reports all over the place, to prevent becoming an identify theft victim,” I was told by “Eric,” a security manager for Chevron mini markets in California.
Eric told me that, in his opinion, any service station employee, in that situation, should at once try to find a phone number, through Google, the phone book, anyway possible, just as soon as they could, to help their customer. “And if not immediately successful, to call the police and give them the wallet,” he stressed.
As logical as that seems, as considerate as that would be for Brookside’s customer, that’s not what happened. As I would soon learn, no one at that Brookside Market and Deli did a thing to find the owner of that wallet.
Setting up a conference call between myself, June and the market, I explained why I was calling and asked what they had done by that time, roughly 3 p.m.
“Nothing beyond looking in his wallet,” a “Vicky” told me. I asked if they would give me name and address information from the driver’s license, and I would use my data bases to locate him. Vicky refused, stating, “That’s confidential.” She was as wrong as wrong could be, and then told us something which was both maddening and said something about the intellectual capacity of Brookside’s employees:
“Well, the guy did come in looking for his wallet earlier today, but the clerk who took it from June wasn’t there at the time and put in the wrong place. He also didn’t tell anyone else working here that we had this lost wallet.”
I again said, “Look, there is a legal duty to return it to the poor guy. He’s probably sick with worry about all of his personal information and credit cards. It will take me 5 minutes to locate him, and if not, you can call the police and give it to them.” Vicky again refused. She also refused to put me in touch with management.
I phoned another Brookside Market in the Bakersfield area, explained the situation, asked to be put in touch with someone in management, and was refused.
Finally-still with June on the line — I called Brookside back, and was told by a now sarcastic, short-tempered, Vicky, they had just “given it to a police officer.”
I confirmed that statement with an extremely polite and professional Bakersfield Police Officer Hernandez who told me the owner had been notified his wallet was at the police station.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.