A safe left on the roadside for rubbish collection contained a wad of cash - possibly as much as $30,000 - which was discovered by council contractors.

The discovery of the cash has raised the legal question of whether 'finders keepers' applies - or if the money should be returned to the absent-minded safe owner who threw it away.

Council contractors stumbled upon the cash in the safe, which had been put out for inorganic rubbish collection in an Auckland suburb. The cash has been handed in to police.

Waste Management staff made the discovery after collecting the safe on the side of the road in Hillsborough last Wednesday.


The case raises a fascinating question about who can lay claim to valuables found on public property - and which has been put out as rubbish.

Barrister Marie Dyhrberg said in such cases it wasn't as simple as "finders keepers".

Anyone who found and kept a large sum of cash or valuable objects could be subject to 'theft by finding' if they did not hand it in to police.

"Common sense would tell you no one would abandon [cash] and that's an oversight."

Theft by finding means you cannot assume because you found something abandoned that it now belongs to you.

Waste Management national manager Monica Cadman said the cash discovery was "acted on immediately".

Neither she nor police confirmed the amount, which the Herald understands could be as much as $30,000.

"We were made aware of the incident the same day and notified Auckland Council and police within 24 hours."

The money was handed over to police who confirmed no crime or theft occurred and no charges have been laid against the six people involved, Cadman said.

"Waste Management has strict policies that govern the inorganic collection service and are following our normal investigation process."

Police confirmed a sum of cash was handed into the Otahuhu police station after a safe containing a sum of cash was found on March 7.

"Police are making inquiries to locate the owner and establish how the safe came to be in an inorganic collection," a police spokeswoman said.

It was too early in the investigation to confirm how quickly the money was handed in and the claim by Waste Management no crime or theft had occurred, the spokeswoman said.

However she did say no complaint about the matter had been made to police.

The spokeswoman also did not confirm how much money was involved and whether it was known if the amount of cash found in the safe matched that handed in.

Who can lay claim to cash found on the side of the road?

Dyhrberg said case law would guide any prosecution in a case like this, using the general principle of theft by finding.

While most inorganic rubbish can reasonably be assumed to be abandoned, in this case common sense dictated someone probably didn't mean to throw away cash of up to $30,000.

The fact it was a mistake did not reduce the original owner's claim to the money, Dyhrberg said.

"The person who would argue 'look, we found the safe it was abandoned', common sense would say it's a safe, they couldn't get into it.

"You can't possibly have believe the owner abandoned that money."

There was no specific law governing when 'finders keepers' applied or not, rather case law would be used to prove lawful ownership.

"You won't find the law sets it up, what you will find is the cases that went to the high court of the court of appeal and they set up certain circumstances.

"So you are guilty of theft by finding."

An offender would likely receive a fine, rather than jail time if prosecuted, she said, speaking generally and not about this specific incident.

"Your safest bet is always, anyone who find anything and has any doubt at all, just hand it into the police," Dyhrberg said.

"After a while if there's no claimants, if you can't possibly take steps to find ownership, you become the owner, police can give it back to you."