Lost and Abandoned Personal Property Overview

By Craig LaChance

I’ll admit it: I’m a fan of A&E’s preposterous reality show Storage Wars. The show’s own description revels in its absurdity: “‘Storage Wars’. . . follows teams of bidders looking to score it big in the high stakes world of storage auctions.” Basically, the show chronicles the adventures of people—or in A&E’s parlance, “modern day treasure hunters”—who buy the detritus of abandoned Southern California storage units. The show exists somewhere on the cultural continuum between guilty pleasure and irredeemable trash. Nevertheless, it works for me on several levels.

As an initial matter, the show is voyeuristic. Each storage unit is a small window into the life of the person who rented it. Who is the type of person that collects street signs from the 1920s? Or Soviet cosmonaut suits? Why would someone store a ratty old mattress that is worth less than the unit’s monthly rental fee? What is more, each unit represents an enigma. What happened to the owners of the personal property? Why did they abandon their personal property? There is an untold narrative for each of these abandoned units that connotes loss, mishap and human wreckage. Storage Wars is unintentionally documenting the Great Recession.

Storage Wars is also interesting as a meditation on 21st century American masculinity. The treasure hunters are almost exclusively male. Tension on the show is generated by the cast’s macho braggadocio. These are not mere storage auctions; they are showdowns, battles. The cast often describes their elaborate bidding strategies to the camera with blustering swagger. The goal is not simply to make the winning bid, but also to taunt, intimidate, belittle and teach a lesson to the competition. The whole thing plays out like a burlesque of manhood. If bidding on junk at a storage auction is a testosterone-drenched manly endeavor, then manliness means nothing.

But, the most compelling thing about Storage Wars are the moments when the guys actually find something of value in a unit, or as A&E’s website puts it, succeed in “their quest for the extraordinary.” For whatever reason, we get a thrill seeing people luck into something. This is why we watch the Antiques Roadshow. The tweedy antiquarians opining about people’s personal property has its own special appeal, but the real payoff is when someone learns the painting that’s been sitting in their attic for 20 years is a Mark Rothko. My property professor in law school said that every year the most popular sections in his class was adverse possession, the legal doctrine that allows someone to essentially acquire someone else’s land just by sitting on it. As my professor phrased it, “People love the idea of getting something for nothing.”

personal-property-lawsWhile everyone loves the idea of getting someone else’s stuff, the law governing lost and abandoned personal property is opaque. Granted, most lawyers are familiar with acquiring land by adverse possession. But the rights of lost and abandoned personal property—i.e., movable things, like cars, jewelry, furniture etc.—is neglected. I am going to remedy that. Here is what you need to know about how to acquire rights in found personal property.

A finder’s rights in personal property depends on the circumstances in which it was left behind. There are four categories of found personal property:

  1. The first is abandoned property. Someone abandons property when they voluntarily relinquish ownership with the intent to give up both title and possession. For example, putting your collection of New Kids on the Block cd’s on the curb for the garbage truck amounts to an abandonment. A finder of abandoned personal property acquires title to it by actual or constructive dominion and control over the property with intent to assert ownership of it. Thus, if the garbage truck driver takes your NKTOB cd’s up to the front of the truck, intending to keep them, he has acquired title. Incidentally, the personal property sold at auction in Storage Wars, while de facto abandoned, is not technically abandoned. Rather, they are sold under statutes that give storage unit owners a lien on personal property in an unpaid storage unit. See e.g. Va. Code Ann. § 55-416 et seq. (Virginia Self-Service Storage Act); Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 33-1701 et seq. (codifying Arizona’s storage laws).
  2. The second category is lost property. The test for lost property is whether a reasonable person would judge that the owner had parted with it unintentionally through carelessness or neglect. Think of a purse accidentally left at a checkout stand. The finder of lost property is entitled to possession against all the world. But unlike abandoned property, finding lost property does not confer title. Instead, the owner of lost property still retains title. Therefore, a finder who sells or damages lost property would still be liable to original owner.
  3. The third category of found property is mislaid property. Property is mislaid when, judging from the place it is found, it appears the owner intentionally placed it there and later forgot about it. The finder of mislaid property, however, has few rights to it. Rather, the owner of the premises on which the property is found is entitled to possession, not title, against all the world except the original owner.
  4. The fourth and final category of found property is treasure trove, which is verifiably antiquated gold, silver or money that has been concealed for so long that the original owner is either dead or unknown. For example, gold doubloons stashed in the wall of an old house would be a treasure trove. Traditionally, the finder of treasure trove took possession and title to the property. The modern trend, however, is to treat a treasure trove like lost property, i.e. the finder only gets possession.

So one can only acquire title to abandoned property or (perhaps) to a treasure trove. Lost or mislaid property entitles one to, at best, the mere right to hold the property. Now you know how the law treats someone else’s stuff. Of course, if you ever have a dispute over personal property (or real property), you should contact the excellent, seasoned attorneys at Baird Williams and Greer.

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