Legal-Ease: Lost or misplaced? Circumstances matter

I have a hard time keeping track of my cell phone, and of course most times my cell phone ringer is off. I tend to spend some time searching for my cell phone before I cave and resort to calling my missing phone in hopes of locating it quicker. I tend to carry multiple phones (a work phone and a personal phone), so I usually can use one phone to call the other phone without having to ask for someone’s assistance in locating my misplaced phone.

With that being said, we all sometimes lose track of where we may have placed things. Things intentionally placed somewhere but not retrieved from that intentional place are legally called “misplaced.”

On the contrary, I specifically remember a time in college when I went on a run with $20 in my pocket. I intended to get ice cream after my run and then planned to walk back to my dorm. However, upon reaching the ice cream parlor, I quickly realized when I went to use the $20 bill that I had lost my money at some point during the run.

The law calls an item “lost” when we drop something or otherwise lose something in a specific place that we did not intend for the item to end up.

So how do you know if an item you stumble across is lost or misplaced? The circumstances of where an item is located along with the item’s condition determine whether an item is lost or misplaced. In fact, an item can be considered legally lost or misplaced regardless of whether items have been reported to law enforcement. So even if I never reported my lost $20 bill to law enforcement, the item’s condition and circumstance would help one determine if it was lost or misplaced.

Let’s say the $20 bill was a birthday gift, and I happened to have the $20 bill still in the birthday card, stuffed inside of an envelope, when I lost it. The birthday card happens to have my name on it. In this instance, it is clear who the $20 bill belongs to, and even when the item (the $20 bill) leaves my possession it still remains my property.

In other words, items that leave their owners’ possession (either lost or misplaced) are the property of those items’ owners as long as the owner can be identified or located. So in the example of the $20 bill, if the card said “Nichole Shafer,” it is likely I could be identified. If the envelope also has my address on the front of the envelope, it is even more of an argument that the actual owner can be identified.

The rules change when the actual owner cannot be identified or located. If a person finds an item that is lost without an ability to find the actual owner, the finder becomes the owner of that lost item. In other words, for lost items without identified owners, the law is finder’s keepers. The facts of the circumstance of where an item is are critical in determining if an item is lost or misplaced.

Nichole Y. Shafer is an Ohio-licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LTD in Putnam County. She limits her practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.