Everyone has found some change on the floor or a few dollars left behind from a previous customer. People generally jump at the chance to snag some free change, while others may donate it back into the spare change receptacle at many checkout lanes. But if the amount of money you find is more than a few dollars, do you have a legal responsibility to turn it in?
For example, three dollars may not seem so bad, but finding a five-, ten- or twenty-dollar bill can start to feel like money someone will be missing — and go looking for. Where do store managers or police draw the line between “finders, keepers" and theft?
This is a criminal act that includes everything from finding and keeping the money to taking it from someone intentionally. If you use threats or force to take the money then it will be considered a robbery.
The person you take the money from does not need to be present in the area for it to be considered theft — they could have been gone for days and the money will still be considered theirs. So technically, taking any money you find on the ground or at a checkout lane is theft.
It can be scary to pick up random money, assume it is lost or forgotten, but then hear someone frantically asking about their dropped money. Adrenaline and fear do not make this type of situation easy to handle. You will generally have three options at this point.
Option 1: Immediately Admit Fault/Guilt
You can walk over, give the money back, and apologize to the person. You can also turn it in to customer service and explain the place and time where you found it.
This can be a frightening option because you do not know if they will thank you, or if they will involve the store managers or police. With small amounts of money, generally under $399, this would be considered petty theft. You may be able to simply say “here, I found this."
If the money seems like a significant amount, usually $400 or more, it may be considered grand theft. This amount of money could cause concern and escalate the situation.
Option 2: Return It, But Talk to an Attorney First
Keep in mind that you always have the right to defend yourself against a criminal theft charge. You can choose to not admit fault, leave with the money, and immediately talk with an attorney. Do not post on social media about it or talk about the situation with anyone but an attorney.
If you are just trying to do the right thing but avoid punishment, your attorney can help ensure the money is returned while also protecting your rights. Depending on the situation, you could face punishment for theft, but an attorney will fight to lower any fines or punishments.
Hiring an attorney may also be expensive for something like finding $20 on the ground. Weigh the pros and cons, and keep in mind that many attorneys offer a free consultation to give you an honest outlook on your case.
Option 3: Keep the Money and Stay Silent
If you leave the store or area with the money, then you are committing theft. There is a chance no one will notice or care about a few dollars. There is also a chance that the owner of the money will ask questions and involve the store manager or police.
Keep in mind that most public places and businesses have cameras everywhere and often plainclothes security in the area. They may be able to identify you and charge you with theft days or even weeks later. The statute of limitations on “petty theft" under $400 is usually one year — you can check your state's specific laws.
If you have been fingerprinted or arrested or used a credit card in the store, the police may be able to find you and take steps to confront you. This would normally involve time stamping the camera footage of you, reviewing the store's transaction systems for your card information, and then finding your name and address in the police database to take further action.
There is no right answer to this situation since it may depend on the specific circumstances. To be safe, you can speak with an attorney to hear their opinion on your next steps. They can also inform you of the possible outcomes, penalties, or the risks of keeping the money.