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How do I go about legally obtaining personal property that belongs to me and is being held by another person?

Covina, CA |

My ex-boyfriend refuses to return an Apple MacBook laptop (worth about $1000), a small collection of about 15-20 books (all loaned to him by me during our relationship), as well as some jewelry of mine that I had left with him before the breakup. I have asked him numerous times to return everything. He agreed over e-mail to return these possessions about 3 months ago but has since refused to ship them to me. I need to know if I can take any kind of legal action against him for unfairly keeping my possessions. He has told me I have no case for small claims court and that he does not feel like giving any of these things back to me. He currently resides in Concord, CA. What legal action can I take to regain possession of these items?

I do not have the receipts for any of the property, BUT I have e-mails between him and I in which he states that the property belongs to me and that he will return it. He has recently told me that if I try to take legal action he will file a harassment suit against me for the e-mails I sent him in trying to get my things. This is absurd but if someone could tell me if he could really do this I'd appreciate it.

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Attorney answers 4

Best Answer

While I agree with the "legal" answers provided below you really need to weigh out whether or not the cost of the proceedings, including the time you will need to spend, is worth it to you. The likelihood is that you must file in small claims in Concord, not Covina, as the defendant resides there. I cannot see another basis for venue even if you did live in Covina together because there is no "contract" between you, he is simply wrongfully withholding from you property which belongs to you which is a tort called conversion (which is a legal word for stealing).
That means it will cost the filing fee of between $50-$100, a plane flight or drive to Concord for the hearing (hopefully only once because the case is heard the first time and there are no unforeseen problems with service or other issues). This part only gets you the judgment, then you still have to get a writ of possession issued by the clerk (another filing fee of about $35.00) and maybe another trip to Concord although you are, in theory supposed to be able to get it done via mail or through the online service. Then you need to deliver the writ to the Sheriff (or other designated officer of the court) with a deposit to have the property picked up by them. The deposit is, I believe, based upon a fee schedule the Sheriff has, which will run another couple of hundred dollars. This whole process will likely take a few months if everything goes just right, if not, who knows, maybe six to nine months. Unless there is sentimental value to the jewelry it is unlikely this route will benefit you. Although, if your intention is to make sure your ex-boyfriend understands that he is wrong, which he is, then you will accomplish this goal.
Sorry to the bearer of bad news, good luck to you.


This is a case which would be appropriate for small claims court. It is your burden to prove the value of these items, but it shouldn't be too difficult for you. The maximum you can sue for in small claims court in California is $10,000. Sometimes, a small claims court judge will just award damages. Other times, the court can order return of specific items of personal property.

For more information and forms, see:

Frank W. Chen has been licensed to practice law in California since 1988. The information presented here is general in nature and is not intended, nor should be construed, as legal advice for a particular case. This posting does not create any attorney-client relationship with the author. For specific advice about your particular situation, please consult with your own attorney.



Thank you so much for the quick response and helpful advice. I want to send a demand letter first before pursuing legal action. In the letter, do I need to state the exact items requested, or is a generic "personal property" sufficient?


I agree with the first attorney's response, and expand slightly on your options for relief.

You can either seek to recover your property (an action in Replevin), or damages that equal the either the total value of your property or the cost to you from disposession of your property (an action for trespass, trover, or conversion). It sounds like you want your things back, so you will need to seek a writ of replevin

Replevin is a long-standing summary process, by which a man out of whose possession goods have been taken may obtain their return until the right to the goods can be determined by a court of law.

Replevin arose out of the need of society to discourage resort to self help and, although for a long time primarily used in disputes about distress between landlord and tenant, it was gradually expanded to cover all cases of allegedly wrongful dispossession.

"(I)f the plaintiff wanted return of his chattel in specie, replevin was a more appropriate remedy than either trespass or trover in which only damages could be recovered. Restoration of the property is, of course, only provisional, pending determination of title."

Good luck!

This is not legal advice and the within response does not create an attorney client relationship between this office/me and any other person or entity. Hans Gillinger Of Counsel Law Offices of Bonnie Z. Yates 13323 Washington Blvd., Suite 300 Los Angeles, CA 90066 tel: (310) 204-6624 fax: (310) 204-6624 Direct: (310) 279-5048 Email: web:


Most small claims courts have advisors to assist people with the process. You will need to sue him in Concord if that is where he is and where you had cohabited with him. Ask the advisors if you can sue him in Covina if that is where you were living together when he stole your things.