A person placed a posting online that said, "I just had a tag sale, and all left-overs are on my lawn free to anyone that wants to take it. Help yourself!"

Someone comes by, sees a large dresser on the lawn, and takes it to his home which is a few houses away. He places it on his lawn.

Several minutes later, the original dresser owner comes by the other person's home, and sees her dresser on the other person's lawn. She knocks on the door, and says, "What are you doing with my dresser? Didn't you see the sign posted on the front of the dresser saying "Do Not take this dresser. Help yourself to everything else"?

The other person says, "What sign? There was no sign!"

The original owner says, "I placed a paper sign on the front of the dresser. The wind must have blown it off. But, I want my dresser back!"

Does the other person have to return the dresser? Does placing a flimsy paper sign that the original owner should have known would easily be blown away by the wind indicate some form of negligence in protecting her property? Technically, the other person hasn't done anything wrong as there was no sign excluding the dresser, and the ad stated to take anything on the lawn.

Please feel free to edit the question title. I had trouble phrasing this. I also couldn't locate proper tags.

  • 1
    "Technically, the other person hasn't done anything wrong" I don't know why you say that. They may have stolen. All you can say is certainly there were no nefarious intentions.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:31
  • @DoubleAA Ok, that's a technicality. How do we know that this is stealing? And how could it be stealing if the taker assumed that this was property for the taking to begin with? Doesn't "stealing" imply knowledge that the property you are taking belongs to someone else?
    – DanF
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:44
  • "that's a technicality" You're the one who said "Technically"!! "Doesn't "stealing" imply knowledge that the property you are taking belongs to someone else?" No. Why would it? Does illegal parking mean you had knowledge that there was a hydrant there?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:46

1 Answer 1


If someone had no intention to give an item away, then it still belongs to them, even if I take it under mistaken (and even best-intentioned) premises.

As long as the item is still intact and in my possession, then I am obligated to return it via the principle of expungement -- it's his item, I need to give it back.

Now if I intentionally steal a car, and ten minutes later that car is completely destroyed by a random lightning strike, I must pay the owner back for the car (and in some cases, add 100% of the value), as a penalty for theft, even though there is no car right here now to expunge.

It's debated whether taking something by mistake constitutes "theft" per se; so in your case, if the furniture was destroyed in a fire, or you then sold it to someone else who the owner can't charge, it's debated whether you'd be liable. But if it's still in your possession? Give it back. Right now.

  • Thanks. If you can provide some source to strengthen the answer, it makes it better. I was about to ask what happens if the taker sold the item, meanwhile, and can't return it, but you answered that, too.
    – DanF
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 15:01

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