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The old adage of “finders, keepers” doesn’t apply to police officers who recover unclaimed cash while in the scope of their employment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled. “If the law permitted an officer to retain lost property when investigation reveals no evidence of a crime and the owner cannot be found, then the police might be encouraged by such a policy to conduct sham or less-than-complete investigations in order to ensure that no crimes would be unearthed and that true owners would never be located,” said Chief Justice John P. Flaherty Jr., writing for the court in In re: Funds in the Possession of Conemaugh Township Supervisors. In February 1996, while Conemaugh Township Police Officer William Richards was on the job, he stopped to investigate a pickup truck that was facing the wrong direction on a highway. Richards confronted Michael Shreckengost, the driver of the vehicle, and asked him for identification. While Richards was returning to his cruiser to check the vehicle’s registration, he noticed a black plastic package several feet off the roadway. He brought the package back to his cruiser, opened it and discovered $20,000 in cash. Richards suspected criminal activity and radioed for backup. Richards, along with a second officer, John F. McKnight, questioned Shreckengost, who denied having thrown anything from his truck and disclaimed any knowledge of the package. The officers searched his vehicle but allowed Shreckengost to depart after finding no evidence of criminal activity. The officers surrendered the cash immediately to the police chief. An extensive effort was made to locate the owner of the cash via lost-and-found sections of local newspapers and the National Crime Information Center, but the chief found no claimant for the money. Three months later, the township petitioned the court of common pleas for a declaratory judgment to award the cash to Richards and McKnight. A public hearing advertised in local newspapers was held in September 1996, but again no one came forward to claim the money. Soon after the September hearing, the police chief spotted an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which Shreckengost claimed to be the true owner of the money. When the chief contacted Shreckengost, he said he had accidentally thrown the money from the truck and requested the township mail him a check for $20,000. At a second hearing before the court of common pleas in April 1997, Shreckengost said a relative gave him the money for speculating in real estate, but he couldn’t say what denominations were in the package because he “had not counted the cash.” Shreckengost said he rolled the bills up in a black bag and stored it with other garbage in his pickup. He further claimed that on the day he encountered Richards, he had pulled over on the side of the road to relieve himself because he had been drinking. Shreckengost said that when he threw out his empty beer can, he also inadvertently threw out the bag containing the money. The court believed none of this testimony and declared Richards the owner of the money. The Commonwealth Court reversed on grounds of public policy. “Police officers are held to substantially higher standards than ordinary citizens. … Public confidence in the purity of the administration of justice would be undermined if a police officer who, in the course of his official duties, finds lost property were to be rewarded by being permitted to keep the property,” said the court. SUPREME COURT DECISION Flaherty first noted that the intermediate appeals court was correct in its application of the common law view of finders, that “the finder of lost or abandoned property [has] a claim superior to that of anyone except the true owner.” However, the court affirmed not on grounds of public policy but rather a mixture of agency law, public policy and the Escheat Act. With regard to agency law, Flaherty drew a distinction between law enforcement personnel and ordinary citizens with respect to lost property. “If a citizen approached [a police officer] on the street and said, ‘Sir, I just found this lost property,’ the officer would obviously have no claim to the property as finder,” said Flaherty. “The same is true of an officer who personally finds lost property while on duty. It is part of his duty to secure such property and return it to its owner. Therefore, if his duties place him in a position to find such property, he finds it as an agent of the state, not in his personal capacity,” the judge wrote. “While we reject any implication that public policy requires the judicial creation of a deterrent to prevent police officers from fraudulent or criminal behavior with respect to property they find while performing their duties, we reach the same result,” Flaherty said. “A police officer on duty does not stand in the same shoes as an ordinary citizen when he finds lost property.” Flaherty also cited the Escheat Act as grounds for denying Richards’ right to the money. “The Escheat Act provides that certain categories of property must be reported to the state treasurer, including: … ‘all property held by or subject to the control of any court, public corporation, public authority or instrumentality of the Commonwealth or by a public officer or political subdivision thereof, which is without a rightful or lawful owner, to the extent not otherwise provided for by law, held for more than one year,’” said Flaherty. Since the funds at issue in the case were subject to that statute and the money remained without a rightful or lawful owner, Flaherty said, the police could not claim the money as finders. DISSENT In a lone dissent, Justice Ralph J. Cappy said the majority should perhaps have focused on a policy of encouraging honesty among police officers, rather than reaching a conclusion by looking at the nature of the police officer’s job as it impacts on lost and found items. “When a police officer is the actual person who found the lost item, and he fulfills his official duty in using all resources at his disposal to locate the true owner, albeit unsuccessfully, that officer should be awarded title to the lost item,” said Cappy. Cappy said the majority had, “in the name of public policy, [created] a special category for police officers as distinct from all other citizens of this Commonwealth in regard to lost property.” Cappy said he believed this was unnecessary, adding “bus drivers, hotel maids and airplane attendants would find more lost items on any given day than a police officer.” And Cappy said that drawing a special distinction for police officers could also have a negative effect on public policy. Officers might be less motivated to act in the best interests of the citizenry, he said. “Exempting police officers from the right to claim title to lost property because of their official status could have the same negative effect that the proponents of the exemption seek to eliminate,” he said. “This officer took every action the majority could want an officer to undertake when he is faced with the discovery of lost property in his official capacity,” Cappy said. “However, the majority chooses to penalize the officer because he was in his official capacity when he found the property. I cannot endorse that decision.”

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