Criminal Possession of Stolen Property Just for Taking Some Stuff out of the Trash?

If the guard had left the stuff in the trash, they would have probably been in a landfill by now and the jeweler would have suffered a loss of $5 million. If I were the jeweler I would have been more appreciative of the guard’s actions: while I would probably see to it he was fired I would not allow criminal charges to go forward.

The guard was clearly a thief. He knew that the diamonds weren’t trash - if he was honest, he would have returned them to the Jeweler, maybe received a reward, and still have a job.

The jeweler whose diamonds were thrown out might not be the victim of theft here, legally. (Although of course he was the victim of his employee’s stupidity.)

Many municipalities, at least where there is city-provided or city-contracted garbage collection, have explicit laws that whatever gets thrown in the trash immediately becomes city property.

Or, more precisely, the common rule (that I’m aware of) is: When a private home owner puts his trash can out at the curb on collection day or the evening before, at that moment all the contents of said trash can become city property.

I don’t know how that would play out in the case of trash put into a dumpster on private property at the back of a retail store. There, one normally doesn’t ever put the trash can out to the curb; instead the dump truck drives onto the property to empty the dumpster. It may also depend, obviously, on whether that kind of trash collection is a city-provided service, or if the collection is entirely private. So it might well be just as the OP describes, that the trash belonged to the jewelry store and the guy who took the diamonds stole from the store, not from the city.

Still, I just thought I’d mention this.

I think the common law about trash becoming city property is intended to give the city the legal tool to arrest people caught rummaging through other peoples’ trash cans on collection day, and not because the city expects to gain anything valuable in the trash that they collect.

Another interesting related remark, although also a bit of a side-track:

The city of Los Angeles, a few years back, tried to cash in on all the recyclable materials that they might be able to get some money from. So they made a law requiring that recyclables must be disposed of via the municipal trash collection. That is, you couldn’t just collect your empty cans and bottles and take it to some private recycling center and get the money yourself. The city wanted that.

Needless to say . . .

Do I even need to say what happened next? (It’s needless to say, remember?)

What happened next after that is the court ruled in favor of the homeowners who challenged that law. They claimed that as long as their empty cans and bottles had some commercial value, it wasn’t trash! and they should be able to resell it to recyclers for the money. The court’s ruling basically said, Well Duh! that’s a no-brainer.

I think the law is being applied correctly here. “Finder’s keepers” only applies if you have taken “reasonable” measures to find the rightful owner, and when you find five million dollars worth of diamonds inside a jewelry store, it’s reasonable to expect the finder to determine whether it’s theirs.

IANAL, but I don’t think you have a say in whether or not criminal charges go forward.

There may be some suspicion of collusion between the guard and the workers who threw out the gems.

Beat me to it. Is the “one person throws it out and another person ‘finds’ it” a classic theft scheme?

Reminds me of the old Chinese story about a peasant who was asked why he was in the stocks, and he said “For picking up a piece of rope in the street”. When further questioned he admitted “Well, there was an ox on the other end of the rope…”

Considering that in this case the discarded boxes were on the third floor of the building near the elevator, I don’t think your assessment is relevant.

Trying to sell the jewels made it theft. And it seems doubtful he was honest about where he got the jewels.

The honest response would be to go the jeweler, tell them what happened and ask if the jewels were theirs. The honest jeweler would say “no” and call other jewelers in the building. A dishonest one (or terminally stupid one) might pay for them, but the guard would be in the clear, since the jeweler lied to him.

Essentially, once the guard asks for money, he’s stolen the jewels.

Yes. it even affect us here at work, when office equipment, tools, etc are declared obsolete and sold. I’m not sure how they handle it, but it’s set up that the person declaring the hardware surplus can’t then go buy it at the auction. Too much a risk of conflict of interest - declaring good stuff obsolete in order to pick it up cheap.

Trash belongs to the person who owns the property it’s sitting on. When it’s in your house (or business) you own it. When it’s in the dumpster, it’s owned by whoever owns the dumpster. When it’s lying in the parking lot of a business, it’s owned by that business.

Usually no one cares if you take trash because it’s generally worthless. But just because it’s trash doesn’t mean there’s not a legal owner.

Theft by Finding.

Funnily enough, the reason I am familiar with the concept of “theft by finding” is because I found some abandoned diamonds (or rather, a diamond ring) and made the effort to research what the proper course of action would be. I took the ring to the police, filled out a form stating that I was the one who found it, and after a few months when nobody came forwards looking for it, it was mine to keep.


If he’d wanted to do his larceny properly, the first thing he needed to do was to research which countries had extradition agreements with the U.S. for this sort of thing - and then book a flight to a country that didn’t, and sell the gems there.

But he blew it. The downfall of too many would-be crooks is sheer stupidity.

*Who steals my trash steals trash.

This circumstance has been covered and, of course, answered by no less than Cecil himself. I humbly quote from the article:

Regardless of who owns the trash, something cannot become trash by mistake. The jeweler certainly did not throw $5MM worth of diamonds away on purpose and no reasonable person would presume otherwise. Once the security guard claimed to be the owner (as opposed to merely finder) he became a thief.

Okay, agreed. So let’s recategorize my remarks as “miscellaneous useful information on the general subject.”

Responding to this:

Cities make those laws about trash becoming city property so they will have a tool to arrest people rummaging through other peoples’ trash. The reason they would want to make this an arrestable offense is for privacy reasons. Crooks rummage through trash to find discarded financial statements or other such documents with information that could be used for identity theft or other kinds of fraud.

(As noted already, it’s not exactly relevant to the current subject.)

ETA: MAD Magazine used to do occasional pieces called “You Can Learn A Lot From Other Peoples’ Trash”. This, of course, was also a principle of operation by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and may still be.