GETTING RID OF ILL-GOTTEN GOODS
IT may happen that a person discover among his legitimately acquired
possessions something that does not in reality belong to him. He may
have come by it through purchase, donation, etc.; he kept it in good
faith, thinking that he had a clear title to it. He now finds that
there was an error somewhere, and that it is the property of some one
else. Of course, he is not the lawful owner, and does not become such
of his good faith; although, in certain given circumstances,
if the good faith, or ignorance of error, last long enough, a title may
be acquired by prescription, and the possessor become the lawful owner.
But we are not considering the question of prescription.
It is evident, then, that our friend must dispossess himself in favor
of the real owner, as soon as the latter comes upon the scene and
proves his claim. But the possessor may in all innocence have alienated
the goods, destroyed or consumed them; or they may have perished
through accident or fatality. In the latter case, nothing remains to
refund, no one is to blame, and the owner must bear the loss. Even in
the former case, if the holder can say in conscience that he in nowise
became richer by the possession and use of the goods in question, he is
not bound to make restitution. If, however, there be considerable
profits, they rightly belong to the owner, and the possessor must
refund the same.
But the question arises as to how the holder is to be compensated for
the expenditure made in the beginning and in good faith when he
purchased the goods which he is now obliged to hand over to another.
Impartial justice demands that when the rightful owner claims his
goods, the holder relinquish them, and he may take what he gets, even
if it be nothing. He might claim a compensation if he purchased what he
knew to be another's property, acting in the interests of that other
and with the intention of returning the same to its owner. Otherwise,
his claim is against the one from whom he obtained the article, and not
against him to whom he is obliged to turn it over.
He may, if he be shrewd enough, anticipate the serving of the owner's
claim and secure himself against a possible loss by selling back for a
consideration the goods in question to the one from whom he bought
them. But this cannot be done after the claim is presented; besides,
this proceeding must not render it impossible for the owner to recover
his property; and he must be notified as to the whereabouts of said
property. This manoeuvre works injustice unto no one. The owner stands
in the same relation to his property as formerly; the subsequent holder
assumes an obligation that was always his, to refund the goods or their
value, with recourse against the antecedent seller.
The moment a person shirks the responsibility of refunding the
possessions, by him legitimately acquired, but belonging rightfully to
another, that person becomes a possessor in bad faith and stands
towards the rightful owner in the position of a thief. Not in a
thousand years will he be able to prescribe a just title to the goods.
The burden of restitution will forever remain on him; if the goods
perish, no matter how, he must make good the loss to the owner. He must
also disburse the sum total of profits gathered from the illegal use of
said goods. If values fluctuate during the interval of criminal
possession, he must compute the amount of his debt according to the
values that prevailed at the time the lawful owner would have disposed
of his goods, had he retained possession.
Finally, there may be a doubt as to whether the object I possess is
rightfully mine or not. I must do my best to solve that doubt and dear
the title to ownership. If I fail, I may consider the object mine and
may use it as such. If the owner turn up after the prescribed time, so
much the worse for the owner. An uncertainty may exist, not as to my
proprietorship, but as to whom the thing does belong. If my possession
began in good faith and I am unable to determine the ownership, I may
consider myself the owner until further developments shed more light on
It is different when the object was originally acquired in bad faith.
In such a case, first, the ill-gotten goods can never be mine; then,
there is no sanction in reason, conscience or law for the conduct of
those who run immediately to the first charitable institution and leave
there their conscience money; or who have masses said for the repose of
the souls of those who have been defrauded, before they are dead at all
perhaps. My first care must be to locate the victim; or, if he be
certainly deceased or evidently beyond reach, the heirs of the victim
of my fraud. When all means fail and I am unable to find either the
owner or his heirs, then, and not till then, may I dispose of the goods
in question. I must assume in such a contingency as this, that the will
of the owner would be to expend the sum on the most worthy cause; and
that is charity. The only choice then that remains with me is, what
hospital, asylum or other enterprise of charity is to profit by my
sins, since I myself cannot be a gainer in the premises.
It might be well to remark here that one is not obliged to make
restitution for more than the damages call for. Earnestness is a good
sign, but it should not blind us or drive us to an excess of zeal
detrimental to our own lawful interests. When there is a reasonable and
insolvable doubt as to the amount of reparation to be made, it is just
that such a doubt favor us. If we are not sure if it be a little more
or a little less, the value we are to refund, we may benefit by the
uncertainty and make the burden we assume as light as in all reason it
can be made. And even if we should happen to err on the side of mercy
to ourselves, without our fault, justice is satisfied, being fallible
like all things human.