If you have solid evidence that someone stole your possessions, you can sue them to get your property back or recoup its monetary value. Filing suit in small claims court is the quickest and easiest way if the value of your property comes within the court's monetary limits.
Going to Court Over a Theft
If you have evidence that a particular person stole your property, you can file a case in civil court in the county where the theft occurred. Ask the court for an order requiring the person to return the articles to you in good condition or else pay you the value of the articles stolen.
Note that this is not a criminal matter. Nothing you do in a civil court can send the person to jail. Criminal cases are brought by the district attorney after a police investigation, so to actually prosecute the thief, you'd need to file a police report.
Which Court to Use?
Given that you are financing the lawsuit yourself, small claims court is your best bet and perhaps your only option. The amount you can sue for is limited depending on your jurisdiction. The limit ranges from $2,500 in Rhode Island to $25,000 in Tennessee. If the value of your stolen property is under the maximum jurisdictional limit, you're in good shape. Many small claims courts will consider a request for restitution – getting the property back – as an alternative to a money judgment.
Why Go to Small Claims Court?
It's much easier, faster and cheaper than the alternatives. You don't need a lawyer, you don't need to study up on court rules and procedures, and you don't need to cite case law. You simply tell your side of the story to the judge. To start a case in small claims court, get a complaint or petition from the court, then fill it out with your name and address, the name and address of the defendant – the person you're suing – and the amount you are claiming. The filing fee is minimal, the wait time is short, and the proceeding is informal. You show the judge your evidence, you listen to the other side's evidence and you get the decision.
Read More: How to Take a Person to Small Claims Court
Municipal, Justice or Superior Court?
If the items that were taken are so valuable that small claims damages won't cover them, go to the next higher court. This could be the municipal, justice or superior court, depending on where you are. The bump-up in courts will come with a big bump-up in costs and time invested in getting back your property. Go to your local court's self-help website and read about the steps to begin a case. You'll need to file a summons and complaint according to court rules. Filing fees can be in the hundreds of dollars, the rules can be confusing and rigid, and the wait times months or years.
Keep a cool head as you figure out whether it's worth it to bring a lawsuit. Even with fail-proof evidence supporting your charges, the most you can hope for is a judgment, or order to pay. If the thief has already disposed of your property, you'll have to track down his assets to get your money.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.