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Taking a “Missing” Cell Phone Can Land You in Serious Legal Trouble

“Finders, keepers,” is an old idiom you probably first learned on the schoolyard playground. It is not, however, a valid legal principle. Just because you find property that may be “abandoned” does not give you a legal right to take and use it yourself. To the contrary, you can be charged with the misdemeanor offense of theft.

Texarkana Man Receives 180-Day Jail Term for Taking Samsung Galaxy S9

A recent criminal case from Texarkana, Garcia v. State, offers a useful cautionary tale on this point. A man visited his local DMV office to obtain a driver’s license. As he walked to the counter to submit his paperwork, the man realized he did not have his cell phone–a Samsung Galaxy S9–on him. At first, the man thought he simply left the phone in his car, but when that turned out not to be the case, he reported it stolen to the sheriff, who had an office in the same building.

The defendant had also been in the DMV during this time. The man thought the defendant looked “suspicious” and took down his license plate number. The man then told police he suspected the defendant had taken his phone.

The police soon located the phone inside of a Ford Explorer registered to the defendant’s wife. An officer called the phone and the defendant answered. He maintained “he had accidentally picked [the phone] up because he thought it was his.” The defendant later returned the phone through a third party.

That was not the end of the matter, however. While the phone was returned, the SIM card was missing and the owner’s personal information had been erased via a factory reset of the device. Police believed this demonstrated the defendant intended to keep the phone for his personal use.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with theft. In Texas, the degree of a theft charge is tied to the value of the property involved. Since the Galaxy S9 was valued between $750 and $2,499, the defendant faced a Class A misdemeanor charge. A jury ultimately found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 180 days in jail.

On appeal, the defendant challenged both the sufficiency of the evidence and the valuation of the phone. The Court of Appeals rejected both challenges and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. On the first point, the appeals court acknowledged, “It is possible to take possession of abandoned property without committing a theft or intending to commit a theft.” But in this case, “nothing showed that the cell phone was abandoned property.” More importantly, there was sufficient evidence to show the defendant unlawfully “appropriated” the phone, including the fact the device was returned in a reset mode with the SIM card missing.

As to the valuation of the phone, the arresting officer testified its retail value at the time was $792. This was “legally sufficient to establish its value,” the appeals court said.

Speak with a Galveston or League City Misdemeanor Crimes Defense Attorney Today

If you do come across property that you honestly believe is missing or abandoned, you should make every effort to return it to its rightful owner in the same condition as you found it. And if you do find yourself charged with theft, you should speak with a qualified Houston misdemeanor crimes defense lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates if you need help right away. Call (281) 280-0100 .