Legal Matters: Is casino patron who finds a $500 chip in luck?

Legal Matters: Is casino patron who finds a $500 chip in luck?
Would a casino patron who finds a chip at a machine have “finders keepers” rights to it? (Associated Press)

A Carroll reader goes to a Maryland casino. She sits down on a bench to invest a few chips in a machine, and finds a $500 chip.

She suspects the chip was inadvertently left behind by a player she had seen abandoning the machine shortly before she sat down.


Her question: does she have “finders keepers” rights to the chip?

Our reader turned the chip over to a casino security officer, thinking he might review closed-circuit video to locate and identify the player who had been at the machine before she sat down. She reported that the officer said no, the casino doesn’t do that.

But if the finder kept the chip rather than turning it in, and the original holder returned to look for his lost chip, the officer explained that security would use the video to identify her, she reported.

Whose chip is it? The answer depends on whether it was abandoned, mislaid or lost.

In common law, based on old English law, abandoned property is property the original owner voluntarily relinquished. It seems unlikely that the player had too many $500 chips and decided to leave one.

Mislaid property has been voluntarily placed in a location under the owner’s thought that he would return for it. He then forgets where he put it. One example is a store customer who lays a package down while he picks up an item he intends to buy, but then leaves the store without remembering to retrieve his package.

Lost property is property unintentionally left by its owner, such as a wallet that falls out of a pocket. The chip seems most likely to fit the legal definition of lost property.

Under common law, the finder of lost personal property has a claim to it that trumps any other claim except that of the true owner. But in this case, who is the true owner?

The man who had been playing the machine could argue that he owns the chip, because he paid for it at the casino teller window. The Carroll woman could counter that she owns it now, because the earlier player voluntarily left it behind when he walked away. The earlier player could then argue he did not intend to leave his chip behind.

But is the previous player the true owner of the chip? Could the casino step in and argue that the chip does not belong to either player, and therefore neither should be allowed to claim it?

The casino’s argument might be that it never sold the chip to the player, just the right to rent it for entertainment, and that the chip itself is worth only a few cents. The player did pay, but was he buying the chip, or only the right to use it for up to $500 worth of casino games?

If the casino requires players to cash in their chips before exiting, it could argue that all chips, whether in machines, at tables or on the floor, belong to the house.