What is Civil Theft


Theft is taking something that’s not yours. If someone steals something that is yours, the police can arrest them and they’ll likely be found guilty in court. It seems straightforward, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you run into a situation called civil theft.

What is Civil Theft?

Civil theft is a complicated issue. At this point, it doesn’t really have a clear cut legal definition. The best way to describe the situation is that it involves somebody taking something that is yours but doing so in a manner that doesn’t really break any actual laws.

An example of civil theft is asking a friend to keep a horse on your property for a few weeks while you organize your life. In your mind, the horse still belongs to you, even though you’ve basically given your friend custody of them. The friend decides to sell the horse. When you find out, you call the police. While the police sympathize with you, they say that since your friend was in possession of the horse and claims that you gave the animal to them, no laws were broken. This can happen anytime you entrust personal property to another person. It seems to be particularly common when there is confusion about when you intend to regain possession of the items.

How to Handle Civil Theft

Because no laws were broken, you can’t file charges against the person who stole your property, though you should at least file a police report so that you have proof that you didn’t condone the action.

You can pursue the matter in civil court. You’ll need the assistance of a good lawyer. The process will likely involve a great deal of leg work that often includes getting witness statements, proof of sale, proof of original value, etc. The cost and complications associated with civil theft are high. As a result, most plaintiffs ultimately choose to drop the case and cut their losses.

How to Prevent Civil Theft

The good news is that civil theft is preventable. Contracts are the key to prevention. Rather than simply handing a pet or other personal belonging to a friend or family member with the expectation that they’ll give it back, everyone involved should sign a contract. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated or extremely formal. All it needs is a quick description of the item, a sentence that states you’re the current owner of the item and that you have no intention of turning the ownership over, and any terms your friend decides to add. Make sure that the contract includes the contact information of everyone involved. Each person named in the contract should receive a signed copy. Make sure you keep your copy in a secure location, such as a safe deposit box.

A good contract can spare you a great deal of aggravation.