What to Do With The “Civil Demand Letter” in a Shoplifting Case

A frequent question asked by clients facing a petty theft or shoplifting charges is whether they should pay the demand by the store for “costs” following an arrest. The letter you received was a “civil demand” letter oftentimes from a law firm, or a division of the store itself, that does nothing but send out these intimidating letters after a shoplifting incident, trying to get hundreds of dollars from the accused.

Indeed, the California Penal Code has a provision that allows a merchant to make a demand of up to $500 from an individual accused of shoplifting in their store to recover “damages”. Those stores sometimes contract with law firms to crank out form letters, demanding outrageous sums of money. They hope you’ll either think it will prevent criminal charges from being filed (it won’t) or that it will mean that criminal charges will be dropped (they won’t).  In many cases, the store will have the accused sign an acknowledgement that they will accept and pay the requested civil demand at the time they are detained for shoplifting inside the retailer’s business.  These signatures are generally obtained under duress and would have little legal weight in a Court of law.

The general consensus in the legal community is that the law firms that send these letters almost never do anything if you don’t pay. One particular firm was quoted recently saying that they send out well over a million letters a year, but rarely file any actual lawsuits. The odds are overwhelming that if you ignore their letter (and the two or three that will follow with increasing amounts demanded), they will in many instances just drop it. You see, they know that even if they were to file a small claims case against you, they likely wouldn’t get anything in a judgment or if they did, it would be far less than the hundreds of dollars they’re asking for and it just isn’t worth their time.  There have been instances where the store will go so far as to place a negative entry on the accused credit report, though this is rare and probably illegal unless you agreed to pay the amount or conceded the debt in some other manner. It is much more likely they will pursue the claim against you if you signed an agreement to pay the civil recovery while being detained.  They deem your signature to be an acknowledgement of the “debt” and therefore treat it as such for purposes of collection.   If you did not sign any agreement to pay a civil demand they can still pursue the civil costs but it is less likely.

Are they entitled to the money? Probably not. Here is why, the store recovered the merchandise in undamaged condition and simply put it right back on the shelf to be resold. Their actual damages are almost always nothing. The store personnel involved in this situation were already on the clock, so no extra salary was paid to deal with you. Consequently, their actual damages are arguably zero.

Here is the bottom line.  Paying it, should you feel compelled to, will guarantee that they won’t file that lawsuit against you or continue to hound you for the money by sending letter after letter causing you much stress and worry.

This civil demand has absolutely nothing to do with criminal charges of petty theft or shoplifting. If there is any actual restitution, you’ll be required to pay that amount (not some inflated amount) through the Court.

One thing though is for sure, if you contact the store or the law firm/collection agency seeking the money then they’ll know they’ve got you on the hook. By engaging with them in any way, either by phone or by mail), they will feel they have somebody who’s willing to pay them and they will keep up their efforts to collect from you. You could advertently say something that could be construed as an agreement to pay, turning this into a different situation.

Either pay the amount demanded, if that gives you peace of mind, or ignore them completely. Paying off the demand is not an admission of guilt. The choice is yours.   The most important thing is allowing your lawyer to focus on the shoplifting charges in Court.

If your decision is to pay it you may want to first try  to negotiate the amount by sending a letter (handwritten is fine).  Specifically write that you dispute the debt and the amount, however, the check will settle the matter.  Attach a check for a lesser amount, say half of what they are requesting, write “payment in full” on the check and write “see attached letter” on the check as well.  This is what is called an accord and satisfaction and should resolve the issue.  If they send it back you are no worse for the wear.

                                                  Arrested? Click Here. 

Here is a sample “accord and satisfaction” letter:

March 13, 2014
Account #XXX-XX-XXXX
Dear Mr. Creditor,
This letter concerns the money you say I owe you. For the past three months I have received bills from you stating that I owe $500 for civil demand costs stemming from an incident of alleged shoplifting.  I never agreed to pay these costs and feel I was unjustifiably detained and/or arrested by the store in question. It is therefore obvious that there is a good faith dispute over this amount you say is owed.
In order to settle this alleged debt, I will send you a check for $200 with the explicit understanding that  if you cash that check it will constitute an accord and satisfaction. In other words, you will receive from me a check that states “cashing of this check constitutes payment in full.” If you cash this check, that check will take care of any amount you say I owe you, even though it is in dispute.
Miss Citizen

You must understand that although you send this letter you may continue to be harassed, however it may end the matter and they may close the case.

About thetorranceattorney

Matthew Ruff is a Torrance criminal defense attorney located near the 405 freeway on Crenshaw Blvd. Focusing on DUI and serious criminal cases for over twenty years. In addition to criminal cases, Matthew defends clients at the DMV.
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5 Responses to What to Do With The “Civil Demand Letter” in a Shoplifting Case

  1. erica says:

    if i dont pay will if affect me in the future? Am i guranteed that i wont be sent to court? all was told was i could no longer enter the store and a letter would come in the mail.

  2. linda says:

    I got
    caught shopping for the first time at krogets. i feel real stupid. so when my letter comes should i ignore the letter?

  3. patrick says:

    Why are you defending the shoplifters they committed a crime but yet you make the the people who catch them the bad guy..but a lot of what you said is true

  4. c says:

    Friend was prosecuted for petty theft and paid restitution. Now they want another $250 (for 3 cd’s which were returned). Won’t leave her alone. She did 5 days jail time and is banned forever from Walmart. I feel the restitution and fines should have been enough. Why the letter after the fact?

  5. IamArtem says:

    Is this really true? And please respond to this… I have been having letters sent to me from a law firm about paying $500 ($505) for an incident that happened over a year ago. I went to court multiple times and with my public defense attorneys help had the charge be a minor infraction and not go on my record. This happened over a year ago and was taken care of just a little bit less than a year ago. I already paid nearly $500 to the court and to a company to take court mandated theft prevention courses. Now this law firm is saying this is seperate from court and I have to pay another $500. I think this is ridiculous because I already paid almost this same amount and it’s been over a year! But they keep on sending me what appear to be real legal documents and appear to be a legitimate law firm… You are saying I should just not pay and the problem will go away? I have no money to pay it anyways, so that’s what I’m soing and I’ll do for now. However I don’t want this to be detrimental to my future in any way. I’m so relieved I will not have a criminal record but I don’t want to ruin my credit. Please let me know what you think about this situation.

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