In Florida, if you find lost or abandoned property, there’s a legal obligation to turn it in to police. Failing to do so can result in theft charges.
State law doesn’t specify any exemptions, even for a $5 bill found on the side of the road. Local law enforcement officials said to use common sense when finding lost property.
“If you think it’s something that could get you in trouble, it should be turned in,” Lee County sheriff’s spokesman Tony Schall said. “If something doesn’t look right, report it.”
If lost property is found, call your local law enforcement agency:
Collier County Sheriff’s Office: (239) 252-9300
Lee County Sheriff’s Office: (239) 477-1000
Naples Police Department: (239) 213-4844
Marco Island Police Department: (239) 389-5050
Blackjack players weren't the only ones busted last week at Seminole Casino Immokalee.
Four men were arrested for taking money from a wallet planted in the casino by Seminole police in recent days, part of an undercover operation that raises legal and ethical issues about the tactics used to catch greedy gamblers. It also raises questions about possible entrapment, as well as inquiries about why police put $300 in the wallet, the exact amount at which a theft turns from a misdemeanor into a felony charge.
"I don't think my client or any of the other individuals would have had any idea of committing any type of unlawful activity if not for the police," said Jason Kaufman, a Pembroke Pines-based lawyer representing Adam Silva, 32, of Gulfport, who was arrested in the sting. "The fact they used $300 seems like an obvious attempt to make criminals out of everyday people."
During the investigation, which spanned at least four days, police moved a wallet containing the cash to different spots in the casino, watching both from the floor and on surveillance tape. Four times, a suspect pocketed the money, leading to his arrest on grand theft charges, police said.
Robert Valdez, 49, a Fort Myers resident, and Silva both ditched the wallet in a bathroom after taking the money, arrest reports said.
Arlin Ashby, 79, a Wisconsin visitor, plucked the cash before turning in the empty wallet to casino security. And Gregorio Villanueva, 36, from Immokalee who has done four prison stints in 13 years, pocketed the $300 and walked out the front door, an arrest report said.
A spokesman for the Seminole police said the casino hadn't seen an increase in thefts before the undercover operation, and no particular reason was given for the timing of the operation. Florida law requires anyone who finds lost or abandoned property to report it to police, and it's illegal to first take the property for personal use.
"The command staff of the Seminole Police Department, headquartered in Hollywood, is undertaking a full review of the recent Immokalee sting operation, which has ended," the department said in a statement. "The review will include discussions with prosecutors about the charges to be filed. Although thefts at Seminole casinos are infrequent, on occasion patrons report lost or stolen items. Our number one goal is to ensure their ongoing safety and security."
Three Naples-based criminal defense lawyers — Justin Caldarone, Mike McDonnell and Landon Miller — who are unaffiliated with the cases said they couldn't recall a similar undercover operation involving planted cash in Southwest Florida. They were unanimous in criticizing the $300 amount used in the sting.
"I don't think it was an accident that they selected that amount of money," Caldarone said.
Miller said the amount is an example of "sentence ratcheting," a term used to describe police tactics that cause the severity of charges to increase.
"I think it raises eyebrows for the offensiveness of it," said Miller, who has had cases involving Seminole police before. "Why not use $100 or $50?"
Seminole police officials declined to comment on the reason for using $300.
All four lawyers interviewed spoke about the possibility of entrapment, though none said the operation was a blatant example of it.
"I'm not so sure that putting a wallet down and baiting somebody to take it would be entrapment," Caldarone said.
To show entrapment under the state's standard jury instructions, a jury must find the defendant was induced or encouraged to commit the crime by a law enforcement officer; law enforcement "employed methods of persuasion or inducement which created a substantial risk that the crime would be committed"; and the defendant "was not a person who was ready to commit the crime." The jury instructions allow law enforcement to use tricks or decoys when making a "good faith attempt to detect crime."
McDonnell said entrapment is "severely misunderstood," noting it's important to focus on whether the defendant had "a prior propensity to commit that crime."
Miller said he couldn't speak to whether entrapment applies for these four men without knowing more about the facts and the police department's operational plan for the investigation.
"It would depend heavily on the person's criminal history, if any," Miller said, "as well as the fact pattern for this particular instance."