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Lottery Ticket Treasure Hunt: To Dumpster-Dive or Not to Dumpster-Dive

by Sara B. Morgan, Esq.

On Tuesday, an Arkansas judge ruled that Sharon Jones must turn over the proceeds from the winning lottery ticket she fished out of a trash can, to the purported original purchaser. According to reports, the winning ticket was originally purchased by Sharon Duncan, who discarded it into the trash can of the Super 1 Stop store after the ticket scanner indicated it was not a winner. Sometime thereafter, Sharon Jones, who routinely recovers and checks discarded lottery tickets, recovered this ticket from the store’s trash can and presented it for redemption of the winnings. After investigation by the Arkansas Lottery Security Cheif, Jones was awarded the prize money.

Interestingly, it was the store manager of the Super 1 Stop that instituted the legal proceedings against Jones, although these claims were found to be baseless. Duncan did not joint the suit until January, after the judge indicated she may be the true owner. The judge ultimately found that Jones failed to meet her burden of proof that Duncan, the original purchaser, abandoned her right to claim the $1 million.

On these facts, however, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Duncan could have undertaken any one of a number of things to pursue her right to claim the prize money, including personally verifying the winning numbers from the newspaper, re-scanning the ticket with the same or different scanner, or presenting her tickets to the state lottery for any secondary prize. Instead, she scanned the ticket once and tossed it in the trash, presumably intending for it to be collected with the other garbage. These facts go beyond the private trash can-private property inquiry of California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35, as this was a public trash can in a public place mixed with public garbage. That Duncan could have no expectation of privacy in discarding her ticket into this public trash only further substantiates the argument that she had abandoned this property.

California lottery tickets include terms and conditions in the fine print which are informative for this situation. For one, the ticket is required to redeem the prize. It follows that, where a ticket is discarded, so is the ticket-holder’s right to redeem the prize. Second, determination of the winners is subject to the rules and regulations of the California Lottery. Thus, the state lottery has the final say in the determination of the winners, and the investigation and verification process undertaken by the Arkansas State Lottery should have been sufficient to establish that Susan Jones was entitled to the winnings.

The fine print further instructs purchasers to write their name, address, phone number, and signature on the back of the ticket, in order to indicate ownership thereof. It would follow that this present ruling, even with an appeal pending, will call mass attention to these types of technicalities, and make it extremely difficult for any future dumpster-divers to (potentially) win big.

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