Finding a lost wallet and the law 

click to enlarge California Civil Code Section 2080 states that “Any person or any public or private entity that finds and takes possession of any money, goods, or other personal property, or saves any domestic animal from harm, neglect, drowning, or starvation, shall, within a reasonable time, inform the owner, if known, and make restitution without compensation, except a reasonable charge for saving and taking care of the property.” -
  • California Civil Code Section 2080 states that “Any person or any public or private entity that finds and takes possession of any money, goods, or other personal property, or saves any domestic animal from harm, neglect, drowning, or starvation, shall, within a reasonable time, inform the owner, if known, and make restitution without compensation, except a reasonable charge for saving and taking care of the property.”

Today’s article is not a question, but an account of a recent experience that affected me personally. After a long week, on Friday night, I stopped by The Market on Market Street to get a few things before heading home.

This new gourmet store is near my offices in what has become known as the “Twitter Building” at the corner of 10th and Market streets. Being tired, and in a hurry, I paid by credit card and hurried on home. Later that night, I could not find my wallet.

The next day, I searched high and low, throughout the house, my car and my office. The last place I remember having it was at the cafe checkout, where I put it on the counter to juggle my briefcase, some files and a cup of tea. I was sure I had put it back into my coat, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure. So Saturday, I returned to The Market and asked the manager on duty if I had left my wallet at the checkout counter and whether it had been turned in. He checked the lost and found and, sadly, reported no wallet.

I began backtracking my steps while saying a prayer to St. Anthony (the patron saint of lost things) I learned as a child: “Tony, Tony turn around, something’s lost and must be found.” I searched everywhere, again. I looked everywhere, the laundry hamper, the refrigerator (OK, sometimes I am really tired and have placed things in there with a sandwich), even the garbage bins at home. Still no wallet. I was resigned that it had been found, emptied of a substantial sum of money and thrown into the garbage. However futile it seemed, I didn’t give up.

On Monday, as I was in Davis taking depositions in a catastrophic bicycle collision, I sent an assistant back to inquire at The Market and the security desk at Twitter. Again, no wallet. On Tuesday, I went back to the cafe to get a cup of tea, saw the woman who had served me and, thinking it was probably a futile gesture, again asked if anyone found a wallet.

To my great surprise and joy, she said “yes” and took me to the general manager who stated that a wallet had been found, my wallet. Not only that, every last dollar of a significant sum was there along with my driver’s license, State Bar license, credit cards, pictures of my kids sitting on Santa’s knees and the two packets of emergency Sweet and Low I carry for places that only serve Equal.

The person who returned the wallet is a cashier at The Market: Senait Tecle. She has restored my dwindling faith in the honesty and integrity of today’s San Franciscan. Although, as of Tuesday night as I write this, I have not had a chance to talk with her personally (we have been trading texts) I learned that Senait had found my wallet at the cash register where I left it while juggling my work. She had turned it in to the store’s general manager (who had not been working on the weekend when I had inquired).

The general manager, seeing the cash, had placed the wallet in the store safe instead of the lost and found. My dogged persistence in searching (something that serves me well as a lawyer) and, more significantly, Senait’s honesty and integrity, led to the tremendous relief of knowing that I would not have to replace all my IDs, licenses, credit cards and the fortune cookie fortune that I placed there a month or so ago that says “this current year will bring you much happiness.”

Once the elation subsided, I decided to research the law on lost property and I provide it here for people who may not immediately default to the selflessness of Senait.

Traditionally, the law has recognized a distinction between “lost” and “mislaid” property. Lost property is left in a location that is unlikely to be known by the person who lost it. Generally, that means items that are lost in a public, or semi-public location (i.e., wallet dropped in a public place).

Whereas, mislaid property is left where the person did, at one time, intend to set it, yet failed to pick it back up. (i.e., wallet left at store counter.) So, it seems that legally I had not lost my wallet, I had, mislaid it. An appellate court has held that in the case of mislaid goods the mislayer will probably know where the goods are and will return to the place where he misplaced them, while the owner of goods which were lost rather than mislaid will probably be unaware of the location of the goods. Therefore, in order to insure the return of misplaced goods the owner of the place that the goods were mislaid is responsible for securing them and trying to return them to their owner “before the finder reduces them to his physical possession.”

Finally, California Civil Code Section 2080 states that “Any person or any public or private entity that finds and takes possession of any money, goods, or other personal property, or saves any domestic animal from harm, neglect, drowning, or starvation, shall, within a reasonable time, inform the owner, if known, and make restitution without compensation, except a reasonable charge for saving and taking care of the property.”

So, while there is a legal obligation to return mislaid or lost property if the owner can be identified, it was not the law that motivated Senait, it was her integrity and for that, I am eternally grateful. If you see her tell her she’s great and hopefully we can all learn from her example.

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