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.
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, 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.