Can I keep the ones that got away?

Last fall I was at a lake with my family. While exploring in a wooded area near the lake, I found two fishing poles and a tackle box. The items were not particularly valuable although the tackle box contained a number of fairly nice fishing lures. I called the local ranger and described the items and asked if anyone had reported them as missing. He said no. I took the poles and the tackle box home with me. I have since had the items for several months and have even called to see if the items were reported missing several more times and have been informed that no reports have been made concerning the items. Is it safe for me to assume ownership of the property at this point? I doubt it matters a whole lot either way but I was just curious.

As an avid fisherman myself and having previously worked at a public lake, I can appreciate this scenario. Although I certainly agree with you that the FBI is unlikely to come knocking on your door looking for this property, technically you probably don’t have ownership. The law draws a distinction between lost or mislaid property on one hand and abandoned property on the other hand.

Where lost or mislaid property is found, title to the property does not pass to the finder. Property is “lost” when the owner accidentally and involuntarily parts with the property.

This is usually determined based on where the property is found. For example, if someone finds a valuable wristwatch on a public sidewalk it is probably lost property because the true owner likely did not intend to place it there.

The finder of lost property becomes the owner of the property except against the true owner.

“Mislaid” property refers to property intentionally placed in a given location and then later forgotten about. For example, if the owner of the fishing equipment intentionally hid it in the trees and then later looked but could not find the items, the equipment would be considered mislaid property.

With mislaid property, the finder does not obtain an ownership interest in the property. Instead, possession is awarded to the owner of the property where the property was found subject only to the claim of the true owner.

In your case, if the tackle was mislaid, then the owner of the lake would assume temporary ownership. The rationale for this rule apparently stems from the fact that when property is mislaid, the true owner will go searching in locations where the property might have been placed.

Regardless, if the circumstances under which you found the tackle box and poles suggest that they were mislaid or lost, you would not obtain title to the property.

Where property is “abandoned,” in contrast, the finder obtains title to the property. Abandonment occurs when the true owner voluntarily relinquishes ownership to the items.

For example, if the fishing poles didn’t work that well or the owner just didn’t want to carry the equipment back to his truck and tossed the tackle aside with no intent to reclaim it, the equipment would be abandoned and you would now be the true owner.

As mentioned earlier, the circumstances surrounding the finding of the items and the nature of the items usually provides a strong indication if the items were abandoned. For example, if the fishing poles you found were beat up and unusable as opposed to being particularly valuable, the former scenario would more likely suggest abandonment.

Hopefully the above helps you to uncover some of the answers as you go searching for hidden golden treasure—or, err, fishing tackle.