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Ask an Ethicist: Lost property on campus

This happens to all of us. For days, sometimes weeks, we may see a forgotten umbrella or other lost item sitting in the back of a classroom or office. After some time, many of us wonder if we could simply take that lost property. Is it ethical to take the lost property?
by Rob Peeler Dec 05, 2016

Tom SowerbyIn partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: I have seen the same umbrella in a classroom building for months. It was there over break. It was there last semester. It is still there now. When is an umbrella considered abandoned property that I can take for my own rain protection? Are there any ethical considerations?

An ethicist responds: When the May showers hit, you might be tempted to take the umbrella. Would this be the civil thing to do? Ethically, one should always be thinking of how one’s actions impact others. From the civil standpoint, we should think of how one’s actions impact our collective sense of mutual regard. That the umbrella remained there so long is telling and admirable; that you –we-- are pondering this question is also noteworthy.  Now, if you took the umbrella and the rightful owner came back to get it to use it for himself/herself, how would you feel? Would you, or should you feel bad, about taking their umbrella?  If you let it there and don’t take it, what use is the umbrella? Not taking objects found in the public domain that seem to be left or forgotten is an ethical consideration (what is not explicitly yours, belongs to someone; and taking it would cause some harm), but also a fundamental convention of civility (we respect each other’s property as a sign of our deference to each other).

Penn State makes it a little easier for us to decide what to do with the umbrella or any other lost property for that matter, with Policy AD13 Lost and Found Items. The policy states, employees of the University must turn in all lost items found, either to a supervisor or directly to a lost and found repository. Civilians and all members of our community who find lost items are encouraged to turn them into the closest University Office, or to the University Police or Campus Security Office (as applicable). Evidently, this is a rule that is unenforceable but that appeals to your sense of ethical care and basic civility.  This way, owners who are trying to find lost items can contact the nearest repository located where they believe that their item was lost, and inquire about the item.

If this is not possible, the owners may contact the University Police or Campus Security office, describing the lost item and the location where they suspect the item was lost.  Items are kept for a period of 60 days and if the item is not claimed within that time frame, the item is turned over to Lion Surplus, as long as there was not a finder’s claim. Finders are eligible to claim the lost item if the owner is not located or does not claim the item after the 60 days.  The finder must assert this claim at the time the item is turned in to the repository by completing a Lost and Found Finder Claim Form indicating they wish to maintain their rights as finders, and provide complete contact information and sign as appropriate. 

So, if you wanted the umbrella left in the classroom, you could follow the guidelines of AD13:  Turn in the umbrella to the Lost and Found repository, file a finders claim, wait the 60 days, and if the owner does not claim the umbrella, you will be contacted to come and pick up the umbrella. Legal codes are only as good as the moral character of those who decide to respect them.

Tom Sowerby began his law enforcement career with the Pennsylvania State University Police Department in 1986 as a Police Officer.  During his career he advanced through the ranks from Detective to Deputy Chief.  His supervisory experience includes Patrol, Criminal Investigations, Community Education and Parking Enforcement. In 2007, he was promoted Assistant Chief of Police of Investigations, Evidence and Information Services.  In 2011, he was promoted to Deputy Chief of Police of Police Operations, Patrol, Investigations, Evidence, Information Services and Access Control and Security System programs. Tom Sowerby is a graduate of the Penn State.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.