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The Return of Lost Property According to Jewish & Common Law: A Comparison
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde & Rabbi Michael Hecht

V. Duties of the Bailee-Finder

The basic duty of the finder according to both Jewish and common law is to restore the lost object to its owner. When the loser's identity is known or can be simply determined, (for example when the object contains his name) the Talmud, based on a scriptural49 inference, rules that the return may be made either to the owner personally or to his possessory domain. When one returns an object to owner's domain, it is not even necessary to inform the owner that his object has been returned.50 So too, according to the common law, "a finder is under a duty to ascertain the owner of the article found" and to return it.51

What are the legal duties in a situation where the object's owner is not known, but the object contains clear markings that would allow one to return the object should the owner realize who has found it? Here, Jewish law imposed a heavier burden. Jewish law imposes on the bailee-finder a duty of public proclamation designed to alert the original owner that his property has been found. Much Talmudic and post-Talmudic discussion revolves about the most effective manner in which the public notice of the find can be conveyed to the owner (without also conveying too much information so as to allow a non-owner to claim the property).52 Jewish law does not, however, require that the finder suffer any actual financial loss (or even loss of profit) while seeking to return the object.53 Jewish law requires that one expend free time, but not one's money, in the search for the object's owner.

Common law did not extend the obligation to find the owner even to the expending of one's free time. "While a finder is under a duty to ascertain the owner of the article found, there is no obligation to expend time or money in searching for him if the finder does not have any means of knowing who the owner is."54 The finder only has to engage in a minimal searching that involves the expenditure of only very small amounts of time or effort.55 New York law has shifted the burden of searching from the person who finds the object to the police. The law requires:

[A]ny person who finds lost property of the value of twenty dollars or more or comes into possession of property of the value of twenty dollars or more with knowledge that it is lost property or found property shall, within ten days after the finding or acquisition of possession thereof, either return it to the owner or report such finding or acquisition of possession and deposit such property in a police station or police headquarters....56

Indeed, one who keeps the property for more than ten days -- even with the intent to search for and find the true owner -- is "guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both".57 It is the police who are charged with the duty to find the "true" owner in New York; the finder has no legal obligations to search.58

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