Finders Keepers

Man charged for spending misplaced money

LA VISTA, Neb. – A La Vista man was charged with felony theft after he spent $80,000 his bank deposited by mistake in his account.

George J. Costa, 45, is charged with theft of lost or mislaid property. It is a crime to take money that’s been “delivered under a mistake.”

More than $106,000 was deposited into Costa’s account between August 2006 and February after a Pinnacle Bank employee mixed up account numbers, according to the Nebraska State Patrol.

The bank was able to recover $26,000 from Costa’s account after the mistake was recovered.

“‘Finder’s keepers’ and ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law’ aren’t legal principles,” said Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov.

Costa’s lawyer, James Martin Davis, said Costa is willing to work out repayment in civil court but shouldn’t be charged criminally.

“If somebody sticks money in your pocket and you spend it, you can’t be convicted of theft,” he said.

I read this article and was shocked about how the law treats this situation and have been chatting with Ungsunghero about it and both of us agree that to charge this man with felony is way too extreme, considering the fact that he played no part in the money getting mistakenly deposited into his account.

There’s 3 parties involved here:

  • Depositor – party who is depositing the money
  • Bank – party that is transferring the money from Depositor to account specified
  • Receiver – party that receives the money

Depositor has been making deposits at a bank stating it should be deposited in account X. Bank takes the money and deposits in account Y. Account holder of Y (the Receiver) finds an unexpected semi-large sum of money and like someone who thought he won the Lotto, goes off on a spending spree.

As you can see, the bank is totally at fault here, though the receiver could have from his conscience contacted the bank to clarify the origin of the money, but if he/she doesn’t, is it truly a crime, or even worse, a felony?

If I had accidentally deposited money into the wrong account (say via a wire transfer), I’m pretty much SOL (sh*t outta luck). I can request a stop transfer immediately, but if the money has already reached the other side, who knows how much trouble I’d need to go through and there’s probably a high chance I won’t see a penny of it back. However, if the bank mistakenly deposits the money into someone else’s account, they’re off the hook?

Purely looking at this, the bank’s at complete fault. The mistake was committed by a clerk, and the clerk represents the bank. Given that there was a semi-large sum of money being deposited/transferred, you’d think they’d have at least another clerk to verify the transaction just in case clerk #1 made a mistake. To err is human, right? Even I have to read everything I fill out on a rebate form multiple times to make sure I don’t forget anything. Finally, given the fact that there’s a 6 months between the 1st mistake was committed and when it was finally realized, it becomes even more of the bank’s fault.

If someone drops off a bag of money on my lawn every month and doesn’t come and take it back for 6 months, even if it’s mislaid property, I think it’s perfectly understandable if I’d start using that money. Now you come and say you want the money back or you’ll be throwing me in jail, that’s ridiculous. At this point, you can only blame the guy driving around dumping the bag of money onto the wrong lawn.

Ungsunghero and I discussed this further and we contemplated what would’ve happened if the Receiver called in and question if there was a mistake, and if the bank clerk said there was no problem and that transaction looks fine, would he be off the hook. Similarly, if I called DOT (or DMV in California), and asked if it was okay for me to make U-turns on regular streets they said that was legal, if a cop pulls me over and gives me a ticket for making an invalid U-turn when according to whoever I spoke to was legal, I’d be damned if I can’t use what DOT told me to fight off the ticket.

Ungsunghero brought up a good point that it might depend on how high I go. If I had gotten to a clerk, it might not mean as much if I had actually been propagated to the manager/head of the department.

Although I don’t agree in the “finders keepers” way of doing things, being charged criminally for doing finders keepers is just wrong. The money was not registered to any specific person and it was being deposited into this man’s account. Isn’t there some sort of 30 day or 60 day limit for lost (or mislaid) property? If I found an item and took it to the Police Lost and Found, if no one comes and claims it in 30 or 60 days, it’s mine right?

What should happen is that they get the remaining amount back, force him to sell off or auction off any item he bought with the money, and the bank should be responsible for the rest, as it was clearly their mistake.

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