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Unfortunately, we often see cases where a trusted individual takes property from another person. If you are currently dealing with an ex or roommate who took your personal belongings and refuses to return them, there are ways to get your personal property back. In this article, we explore your options of how to get your items back, including filing a small claims lawsuit against the person who took your property.
Save All the Evidence
The most important thing you can do when someone steals your personal belongings is to save all possible evidence of the incident. This evidence will be useful in the event you wish to file a police report, file an insurance claim, or sue in small claims court.
It is recommended you make a list of the items that were taken and add as many specific details as possible to that list. For example, if your roommate “borrowed” clothing, your laptop, or kitchen appliances and never returned them or took them when they moved out write down the date when they borrowed them and the circumstances surrounding the lending of the items.
Also, gather receipts and bank statements that will help you identify which items are clearly yours if the person that took your belongings states the items aren’t your property.
Can the Police Help Me Retrieve My Personal Property Back?
People often want to know if someone refuses to return their property is that theft and if so should they get the police involved? Unfortunately, police oftentimes will not take criminal action against the person who took your belongings. Instead, the police will say your claim is a civil matter. Whether or not the police take criminal action against the person who stole your stuff, the police will likely direct you to sue them in court. Depending on the value of the property you can file the lawsuit in small claims court.
One thing the police may be able to do for you is to accompany you in the retrieval of your personal property, this is called a civil standby. A civil standby usually consists of a sheriff or police officer accompanying you to reclaim your property, especially if you anticipate the encounter will be violent or dangerous.
If Someone Refuses to Return Your Property is it Theft?
Generally, theft requires taking property that rightfully belongs to another person with the intent to deny them of that property permanently. So the distinction you want to make clear when accusing someone of theft is if you lent someone property and clearly stated if you wanted the property back or not.
It would also be theft if someone took your property fraudulently by making promises they never intended to honor. For example, your boyfriend asks to borrow your car for the weekend and tells you he will return the car by Monday. However, your boyfriend never intended to return your car and takes it permanently. This is theft because of your boyfriend’s intent, fraudulent behavior, and because he has permanently deprived you of your personal property.
Ask for Your Property Back by Sending a Demand Letter
Before filing a small claims lawsuit for your property back try communicating with the individual. You can ask for your property back in the form of a demand letter. A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, if you lent your friend your car and they have refused or failed to return it you can write a demand letter for failure to return a borrowed vehicle. In this example, your demand letter should include a request that your friend either return your car or compensate you.
Here are two reasons why you should send a demand letter:
When you send a demand letter you are taken more seriously by the other party.
You will also be able to include a copy of your demand letter as part of your evidence to show the judge that you gave the other party an opportunity to return your property before escalating the issue to small claims court.
In one of our other articles, we cover how to write a demand letter.
File an Insurance Claim for Your Stolen Stuff
If you have an insurance policy that covers theft you may be able to file an insurance claim if someone has your stuff and won’t give it back. Some renter’s insurance cover losses due to theft, including property taken by a roommate who moved out and took your belongings with them.
If you do have insurance coverage, contact your insurance company and file a claim with them. Some insurance policies require you to file a police report in order for insurance to cover the stolen items. You will need a copy of the police report and a description of the items taken. This is why saving all your evidence is important and why you may want to go to the police as discussed previously.
Suing Someone in Small Claims Court to Get Your Property Back
Common types of small claims lawsuits involving personal property
Lawsuits related to personal property are common in small claims courts. Here are some examples:
Your ex-boyfriend took your dog after you guys broke up.
Your roommate took the TV you bought and refuses to return it.
Your former roommate took your belongings when they moved out of your apartment.
Your ex-girlfriend took your car and refuses to return it.
You lent your roommate your laptop and they refuse to return it.
How can you legally get your belongings back? You can file a small claims lawsuit or get a court order to retrieve your belongings. Some small claims courts allow you to sue for conversion. Conversion is a fancy way of saying someone took your property and neglected to return it. When you sue for conversion and win the court will award you the value of the property taken.
Your legal options may be limited depending on your local small claims court. This is because some small claims courts will only award you money, so you may not be able to sue the person who stole your property to force them to return your property. For example, in New York small claims you can only be awarded a money, so if you sue for stolen property and win you will only be awarded the value of your property.
However, some small claims courts also allow people to file a writ of replevin, which is a court order asking for the return of your personal property by the person wrongfully keeping it. Not all small claims courts allow you to take this type of legal action and the steps for filing a replevin action will vary based on the value of the property and the court you choose to file in.
How much can you sue for in small claims?
Each state has a different limit on how much you can sue for in small claims. Most of the time the limit varies between $3,000 - $25,000. For example, in California small claims you can sue for $10,000 while in New York, the limit varies from county to county and can be between $3,000- $10,000.
In general, if the person who took your property owes you more than the amount you can sue for, you can still sue for the maximum amount allowed, but you will need to waive any additional amount over the limit.
How do I calculate how much to sue for?
Always keep the small claims limit in mind when calculating how much to sue for in small claims court. You cannot sue for more than the small claims limit and at the hearing, you will need to explain how you calculated the money you are owed.
The easiest way to calculate how much to sue for in the case of stolen property is to figure out how much the value of your property was. Use receipts or check your bank statements for things like coffee tables, or other tangible items. For example, you moved in with your roommate and you purchased a $1,000 television for the living room. You and your roommate agreed the television was yours but she could borrow it. Now your roommate has moved out and has taken the television with her. You can file a small claims lawsuit for $1,000, the amount you paid for the television.
Other stolen personal property might be harder to calculate. For example, your ex-boyfriend took your car. How do you establish how much the car is worth? You will want to find information on the car sale. If you bought the car from a private seller look for a sale receipt or something equivalent to it that clearly states how much you paid for the car.
How much does it cost to take someone who stole personal property to small claims court?
The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit against someone for stealing your personal property varies from state to state but generally is between $15- $75. If you cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court if they have the ability to waive your court fee.
You may also need to pay to notify the person who took your property that you have filed a lawsuit against them. This is called “serving” and ranges from $0- $125. The rules around serving are very specific in each state so make sure to review them.
What is a small claims court hearing like?
Small claims hearings are meant to be quick and informal. Here is what you can expect when you sue someone in small claims court:
Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the person who took your property to show each other the evidence you both have brought to the hearing. Bring your demand letter, receipts, bank statements, and other information about the stolen property.
The Judge will ask you why you are suing the person who took your property in small claims court. The judge will then turn to them and ask them to state their side of the story.
The hearing could last around 15 minutes but every case is different and this depends on many factors.
Very rarely will a judge tell you in court their decision immediately after the hearing. Instead, the judge will probably tell you and the person who took your property that the decision will be mailed to you both (which usually takes a few weeks).
How do I prepare for the small claims hearing?
Consider the following points when preparing for your small clams hearing:
Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask questions about the case. Be prepared to discuss the stolen property, how the property was stolen, and all other relevant information.
Prepare your evidence. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared toward showing the judge someone stole your property and that person either has to give you your property back or compensate you.
We wrote a Guide to Small Claims if you want to learn more about how small claims court works.
People Clerk is here to assist you with the small claims process.
Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia is a lawyer and certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts