Someone steals Bob's bike in 2010.

In 2020 Bob finds it for sale. It's too late to prosecute for theft, so the police wouldn't bother.

Of course Bob doesn't know if the seller was the thief. The bike could have changed many hands in 10 years. But Bob wants to find the thief and get compensated via a civil claim and/or publicly name/shame them.

Bob may not care about the bike now anymore (it can be in horrible condition). But he wants to track down the thief and sue them for damages (depriving of using the bike which was almost new when stolen).

Can Bob get the court to subpoena the seller to reveal where the bike came from, and then subpoena all revealed previous owners too?

2 Answers 2


Civil claims have statutes of limitations too

Usually shorter than 10 years. Therefore, Bob cannot sue anyone for recovery and therefore does not practically own the bike. In some jurisdictions, limitations acts make it explicit that Bob loses title to the goods meaning he doesn’t own the bike de jure as well as de facto.

It’s not possible to say what a “typical” limitation period is but periods above 10 years typically only apply to actions on real property (land) not personal property (bike).

However, that just begs the question.

The criminal limitation is irrelevant to the civil action

They are completely independent so whether a criminal action has happened, is in progress or can’t happen doesn’t affect the civil action.

Bob doesn’t need the information

The person who has the bike may or may not be the one who converted it: Bob doesn’t care because they are presently the one detaining it. So Bob sues for detinue: you have it, it’s mine, give it back, or, give me monetary compensation. Whether the person who has it acquired it lawfully or not is a matter of complete indifference to Bob.

If they did acquire it lawfully then they have a breach of contract cause of action against the person who sold them goods without good title. But that’s their problem, not Bob’s.

  • What is "detention" in U.S. law? Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 22:22
  • @GeorgeWhite it’s a tort. It means keeping possession of someone else’s goods unlawfully.
    – Dale M
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 22:48
  • Well, Bob may not want the bike anymore at all (it could have perished). He wants to track down the thief and sue for damages. If there was no time limits for civil action, can he? Or can he regardless?
    – Greendrake
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 22:58
  • @Greendrake why does Bob care who the thief is? He can sue the guy who has his bike for the damage.
    – Dale M
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 23:46
  • 1
    I see a Wikipedia article on "Detinue" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detinue a tort with a very long history that I had never heard of. Thanks Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 1:37

Generally, Bob can only issue a subpoena in connection with a pending lawsuit. The main exceptions are for public officials, not private individuals.

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