Calif. Workers May Be Charged for Selling Sewer Jewelry

Posted April 3, 2013 in Crime by

Open manhole cover


What’s your legal responsibility if you find a ring in the sewer? City workers in Modesto, California are in the process of finding out, facing a police investigation for selling sewer jewelry they found on the job.

The workers may have sold as much as $2,500 in old jewelry, tarnished and eroded by sewer waste, as scrap to a dealer. Now the police are trying to figure out if they can be charged with any crime.

The workers may well be in trouble, but a prosecutor would have quite a job to make any charges stick. Unless there’s an easy way to figure out who lost an item in question, the general rule on found property is finders, keepers.

The standard dates back at least to English common law when a chimney sweep found a ring and took it to a silversmith in the 1722 case Armory v. Delamirie. After the smith stole the jewel from the ring, the sweep took him to court, which declared that the sweep had a stronger right of possession. “That the finder of a jewel, though he does not by such finding acquire an absolute property or ownership, yet he has such a property as will enable him to keep it against all but the rightful owner,” the court decided.

“Common law gives way to laws that are codified,” says Tai C. Bogan, a criminal defense attorney with the Law Offices of Tai C. Bogan in Modesto, noting that it is an enumerated crime in California to misappropriate lost or stolen property.

However, charges are rare due to the near-impossibility of proving such a case. “The crime requires a person to find lost property, fail to make ‘reasonable and just efforts’ to find the true owner of the property and restore the property to them, and keep the property for themselves,” Bogan says.


Identifying Characteristics

Tai C. Bogan

In the case of the sewer jewelry, the first question is whether there is any identifying characteristics that would make it feasible to find the original owner.

“The jewelry is unlikely to be marked with such identifying features, so it would be nearly impossible to find the true owner,” Bogan says. “The difference is like seeing a dollar fall from the pocket of a person on the street vs. finding one on the street. Where the person does not see it fall, there is no duty to track the rightful owner down. However, if the person sees the dollar fall and keeps it for themselves, they are guilty of this crime.”

If the found item was intentionally abandoned, there of course can be no criminal case. “If the jewelry was flushed down the toilet on purpose, then the person who finds it should get to keep it,” the attorney says.

The other sticky issue is whether an employer could lay claim to something found by an employee, but it seems unlikely without some kind of explicit policy in place — otherwise the employer would have no greater claim on the item than the worker. Complicating matters is that the jewelry was found by public workers on government-owned property.

“What comes to mind is the thousands of metal detector enthusiasts who troll the beaches looking for hidden treasures,” says Bogan. “That property, at least in California, is almost exclusively public and government lands. The government doesn’t stake claim to that property and it is unlikely they would be allowed to.”

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