Robbins: Finders keepers? The law of lost and found
Suppose commercial jet parts begin to rain suddenly from the sky. Suppose too that the jet has begun to disassemble itself over a quiet suburban neighborhood and, instead of petunias and garden gnomes, what begins to plant beside the picket fences are jet nozzles, turbines, and compressors.
If they landed in your yard, could you keep them?
This was the question that a general circulation magazine writer wrote to ask me after United Airlines flight 238 began to self-vivisect above a sleepy Broomfield neighborhood on Feb. 20. Why, he didn’t share with me, might he, his readers, or anyone else for that matter, want to keep a 10-foot-tall engine cowling or a thrust reverser? Maybe, I suppose a nacelle was a slightly more interesting ornament than a gnome.
Instead of grilling him, I segued to the law of lost and found.
No doubt, you’ve heard a zillion times that possession is nine-tenths of the law, so often, in fact, that it’s become a bit of a meme. But, you ask yourself, like the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, and rainbow-colored unicorns, could it really be true? If a Pratt & Whitney 5-stage low-pressure compressor tumbles from the blue into my yard, can I make it mine, all mine?
First of all, just because you possess something doesn’t necessarily mean you are entitled to it. Well, shucks!
Say you stole it in the first place. Well, um … that doesn’t make it yours. The law says it isn’t yours because you came into possession of it wrongfully. The nine-tenths stuff applies only in the way of a presumption that must be disproved in order for someone else to claim and obtain ownership. OK, that’s sort of lawyer talk, so allow me to explain.
What it means is that, contrary to countervailing evidence — such as the rightful owner’s initials engraved on the inside of a five-karat engagement ring that you insist is yours — the law will presume — initially at least — that the person in possession is the rightful owner. Accordingly, your interest in the thing, whether it be a sparkly engagement ring or a still-smoldering jet oil pump, will be superior to all other interests to all the world.
But, like life itself, the law of lost and found is not all skittles and beer.
In the presence of countervailing evidence, like the initials engraved in the ring that is too small to skootch down even over your pinkie, or the jet engine part imprinted with an identifying serial number, the presumption or your superior ownership may be squashed like a June Bug beneath your clogs.
To establish rightful ownership, then, it is important to determine, first of all, how you came into possession. In the case of the Pratt & Whiney engine parts, well, just watch the videos. Like manna from the heavens, if not quite so nutritious, they landed in the lap of your front yard without you so much as you lifting a finger.
Check. You came into possession rightfully, through no wrong-doing whatsoever.
Lost property — truly lost property — is that of which the owner has lost possession involuntarily, by accident, through his or her own negligence or forgetfulness, and when he or she is ignorant of its whereabouts or cannot recover it by an ordinarily diligent search.
Common sense helps here.
Lost property is that which is misplaced by the act of the person whose property it was and not because the thing was filched. It is gone by chance, caprice, karma, dunderheadedness, or whatever else may rightfully apply. So long as the “whatever” is not the wrongful act or conduct of another.
The second part of the equation now kicks in.
If you know the engine casing is, um … United’s, then you must return it. Or at least, you must allow United or the FAA to come pick it up. It is United Airlines’ property and United — and not you — is legally (to say nothing of morally) entitled to it.
But what if you came into possession of a thing and had no idea in God’s good name whose it was? While pretty far-fetched in the whole United Airlines raining metal from the sky thing, it happens all the time. Say, you find a pair of Bolle Snow Carve goggles on the mountain. How would you ever find out who belongs to them?
That’s where the Uniform Disposition of Property Act comes in.
What you’re supposed to do is this; take the darn things to the authorities (read, this as the local constabulary) and turn them in. Yep. The law doesn’t care how sharp you look in them. What the law says is turn them in. The police will take down your relevants: name, address, telephone number, etc. and wink at you, sharing with you what a good citizen they think you are. If someone doesn’t come along to claim the beauts within the statutory time frame (for small personal items like this, usually six months in most jurisdictions), bingo, they’re yours. They’ll look great on you next ski season!
Plane parts? Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. And, come to think of it, the garden gnome has grown on you and with Spring coming and all, wouldn’t a bloom of tulips and daffodils look better anyway?