Ethics Lost in Dallas Lost and Found Policy

Texas schoolteacher Gwen Patterson in Dallas found $470 cash and turned it in to the police as lost. The police said they would make the usual efforts to locate the owner. Gwen assumed she would hear if the money was claimed, and if it was not, that she would be contacted to pick up the cash herself. “I didn’t plan a big party, but I thought I could donate to some animal charities, and a relative is out of work,” she said. After four months of futile calls and being given the runaround, she was told that Dallas’ official policy is not to return lost money and valuables to the honest finder who turned it in, but to keep it.

That can’t be right, she thought, and contacted a columnist for a local paper who writes a city column, Dave Lieber. He investigated, and sure enough: although neighboring cities and counties follow the usual practice of holding lost valuables for 60 days and then giving them to the finder, Dallas’s police chief changed the policy two years ago. Now, the rule is “Finders suckers, losers weepers, Dallas keepers.”

What does Dallas think it is, anyway, some kind of Texas feudal duchy? The city government has an inherent right to lost personal property? Where did that come from? Let’s see…what are the possible benefits flowing from this, other than letting Dallas enrich itself? Does it increase the likelihood that the rightful owner will get his or her property back? Well, no…the police, theoretically, have a duty to make a diligent effort to locate the owner no matter what the policy. That’s just theoretically, however. In practice, there is a conflict of interest: the city has an interest in not finding the owner, because the lost valuables go to the city if the owner isn’t found. In fact, the city’s interest in not finding the owner is more powerful the more valuable the lost item is. Why would it make a good faith effort to locate the owner…that is, other than that steely spirit of honesty that we know characterizes big municipal governments? Would you trust the city not to make a half-hearted effort and pocket the cash, under such a system?

Not me..but then, I live near Washington, D.C.

Does Dallas’s novel policy encourage citizens to turn in lost property? Heck no! There is no hope of a reward for rescuing the lost valuables if the owner isn’t found, and there is a counter-incentive making the finder’s private efforts to track down the owner more reasonable and likely to succeed than if it is turned over to the police. So Dallas’s greedy and irresponsible policy puts an honest citizen wanting to do the right thing in an ethical double- bind in which there is no right thing. Applying the Golden Rule–“If I had lost this bag of money, would I want it turned over to the city, which is itching to have an excuse to claim it? If I couldn’t be found, would I want the money to go to the honest citizen who tried to find me, or the venal city that hopes I never claim what is mine?”—dictates not following the law, and performing one’s own search. Following the city’s version of “the right thing” makes the recovery of the lost item less likely, and allows the city to keep what it has no right to keep.

When Lieber questioned city authorities about Patterson’s experience, he was told,

“I hope she takes some solace in the fact that the money will be put to use in Dallas in the most efficient way we know how.”


4 thoughts on “Ethics Lost in Dallas Lost and Found Policy

  1. “I hope she takes some solace in the fact that the money will be put to use in Dallas in the most efficient way we know how.”

    I also live near DC. Call me a cynic, but if this happened in DC I’m betting “the most efficient way we know how” would include paying the lease on a luxury SUV for one of the city councilors. Not my definition of “efficient”…I have little faith in government at any level being “efficient” with money these days.

    Faced with a similar situation, I’m afraid I would have to do my best to find the original owner (flyers? ad in the local paper?) then donate to a local charity.


  2. So if the honest cabbie in New York who found lost jewels in his car happened to be in Dallas, the CITY would have taken the 3-figure-value of jewels for its own uses, if the cabbie had not gone right to the source?

    Unbelievable. “You lose, you lose” is NOT a great motto for the City of Dallas. Taken to its unreal, extreme extent, if a parent loses a child and he/she is found, does that child now “belong” to Dallas, and we will be assured that he/she will be “put to good use?” Shivers…

    This is the problem of the slippery slope. Money we keep? Jewels, people, cars, etc., we don’t? There is no logic here: only opportunistic behavior.


  3. I’m afraid that Dallas- like many big cities today- DOES consider itself a semi-autonomous “duchy”… with the right to do whatever they want (including ignoring federal laws) and expect state and federal handouts in return. I only wish I could say that Houston was better. It’s not, though.

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