I received the following question via Facebook from PQED reader John:
“Jack, there’s no one else to turn to, you gotta bury this thing, once and for all: If I take a pair of gloves from the lost and found box, that no one has claimed, but I need to keep my hands warm, am I stealing?”
Thanks for the great question, John. It seems to me that there are two criteria: whether the gloves are really lost and who gets to decide that they are. So, the first thing we have to know is how long the gloves been there. Most lost and founds (I really wish the plural were “losts and found”) have policies regulating how long something must remain in the box before it gets given away. If the gloves have met this requirement — 30 days, 60 days, etc. — then you can take them.
However, your action must also meet a second condition: do you have any authority over the lost and found? Only the person who officially administrates the box can declare that the gloves have been there for the appropriate time and that they are up for grabs. When that happens, you can use them to keep warm, and it would not be considered stealing. Otherwise, you’re just some dude who grabbed some stuff that isn’t yours and yes, it would be theft.
One final note: it seems to me that you think your question hangs on your usage of the gloves. You state explicitly that you will be using them to keep your hands warm. But it is unclear that this is necessary. If the gloves are legitimately up for grabs, then you could use them for an art project, to muffle loud noises, or to burn the Hamburger Helper logo in effigy. It really doesn’t matter; gloves may have multiple purposes. Of course, if you are using them for non-essential reasons while someone else needs them to prevent frostbite, then his or her claim may take priority. But this is a question of justice and is not related to stealing, which was your original concern.
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