Published 13 September 2021, The Daily Tribune

We are very familiar with the famous phrase, “finders, keepers.” But what we do not know is that legally speaking, such is not quite the case.

In the recent Supreme Court decision, Fernando Pante vs People of the Philippines, GR 218969, 18 January 2021, the SC explained what a person who finds something which is not his, is legally obligated to do. Otherwise, he may be liable of theft.

It was stated in the Decision that sometime in December 2004, a certain Dawson Word lost his bundle of money of around $4,550 and P27,000 when he alighted from his vehicle upon arriving home. The following morning, a bakery worker noticed a bundle of money lying on the ground near Word’s car.

Meanwhile, one of Pante’s co-accused who was riding his bike outside also noticed the bundle of money and picked it up.

That same morning, Word realized that his money was missing. He did not find the same despite a thorough search. With the help of his landlord, Word learned that Pante’s minor co-accused picked up the bundled money near his car. Word then sought the help of the police in the recovery of his money. Upon investigation, it was found that Pante’s minor co-accused was indeed the finder of the money.

The police headed to the residence of the minor and found the bundle of money. The accused minor likewise admitted finding the same and sharing the money with his cousin, also a minor, and to Pante.

Portion of the money and the things bought with Word’s money were returned to Word. And all the persons who shared the money were all prosecuted for the crime of theft against Word.

The RTC found all three accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of theft. Aggrieved, Pante appealed the judgment before the CA, but the latter upheld the ruling of the RTC.

Discontented with the CA’s resolution, Pante brought the case to the SC arguing among others that there was no unlawful taking of the money on his part because the finder of the lost money was his co-accused and not himself. Not knowing where it came from, he averred that he did not have any intent to take money belonging to another.

The SC was not convinced.

Under Article 308, par. 2 (1) of the RPC (Revised Penal Code), theft is also committed by one’s failure to deliver lost property to its owner or local authorities. In this kind of theft, it is essential to prove: 1) the finding of lost property; 2) the failure of the finder to deliver the same to the local authorities or its owner.

In the case at bar, both the trial court and the appellate court found that the prosecution witnesses were able to prove that Word lost his bundled money after alighting from his car, and such fact was corroborated by the prosecution witness who testified that he positively saw the accused minor pick up the bundle of money under Word’s car.

Anent Pante’s argument that he cannot be convicted for theft because he is not the finder of the lost property, the SC was not persuaded.

The question of whether criminal appropriation of found property can be committed by a person other than the one by whom the property is first found has been lengthily discussed and answered in an older case which in sum states: “One who receives property from the finder thereof assumes, in legal contemplation, by voluntary substitution, as to the property and the owner, the relation occupied by the finder, placing himself in the finder’s stead. In such a case, whether the person taking the property is guilty must be determined on the same principles that govern in the case of the actual finder.”

In fine, a “finder” under Article 308, par. 2 (1) of the RPC is not only limited to the actual finder of the lost property, since the gist of the offense is the furtive taking and misappropriation of the property found.

The rationale for the “finder in law” concept is not difficult to fathom. It is precisely to protect the owner of the lost property in the event the lost property is transferred from one individual to another and to prevent the “finder in law” from escaping liability by claiming that he was not the actual finder thereof but was merely entrusted custody thereof by someone who had no intention to appropriate the same.

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