It is often stated that a plaintiff cannot recover in replevin' or detinue unless the defendant is in possession of the disputed goods at the commencement of the action. This requirement is fundamentally one of practicality. Since possession of the chattel is the primary object of an action for specific recovery, replevin is inappropriate unless the defendant is in a position to restore this possession to the plaintiff. But one may sometimes be able to put another in possession and have a duty to do so without himself having that combination of physical control and intent which the law calls possession. In such cases the practical reason for the requirement is satisfied, and replevin has been held to be a proper remedy. Replevin will lie, for example, against a servant (who has only custody of his master's goods), against a bailor at whose order goods are held by another, and against an attaching creditor who may at will release to the owner goods in the possession of the sheriff. Thus, insofar as the character of the remedy is concerned, the requirement that a defendant in replevin have "possession" means merely that he must be able, without personally invading the rights of any person not a party to the litigation, to put the plaintiff in physical custody of the goods.
Beverly Douglas Jr.,
Replevin of the Contents of Safe Deposit Boxes,
2 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol2/iss4/13