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Hi. This is Orange County defense attorney Joe Dane. Today I’m going to talk about shoplifting and civil demand letters.
If you were detained or accused of shoplifting in a store, one of two things may have happened: They could have called the police. If you were arrested or cited to appear in court based on a theft or shoplifting charge, you need to absolutely contact a criminal defense attorney to discuss your options and get representation in court. The other thing is – the store personnel may not have called the police, they may have said “We’ll let you go, but you have to pay a ‘fine’ to the store.”
Well, it really isn’t a fine – it’s a civil demand letter.
Penal Code section 490.5 allows a merchant either directly or through a law firm to send out these civil demand letters and demand up to $500 in a shoplifting incident. The letters sound very intimidating. They come from law firms on letterhead. They talk about paying immediately to avoid further legal action and pursuing their rights and things like that, and they’re designed to intimidate. The big question though is: do you actually have to pay what they’re asking for? Legally speaking, there’s no obligation to pay that – it’s just a letter. It’s like if I sent you a letter and said, “Hey, send me $500.” There’s no legal obligation to send that. It’s not a debt that you owe and it’s not a judgment that has to be paid. It is a demand letter. They are demanding that you pay them money.
So what happens if you don’t pay it? The law says they’re allowed to sue you in Small Claims court. But in California, lawyers can’t be involved in small claims cases, so they would have to go through the store personnel to go to court and put on testimony to prove that you owe them anything.
Typically, that merchandise is recovered and put right back on the shelf to be resold to the next customer, so the store hasn’t suffered a financial loss and the only thing they would be suing you for is the cost of investigation which typically couldn’t be more than a couple hundred bucks. It’s just not worth their time.
In almost 18 years of practicing law plus my time to as a Deputy Sheriff and participating in statewide and nationwide forums for other defense attorneys, I’ve never actually spoken to someone whose client has been sued for ignoring the civil demand letter. So if you ignore that letter, they may send a second one. The dollar amount they are asking for may go up. It may contain a little bit more threatening language. If they have your phone number, they might call you. If you continue to ignore them though, ultimately they have to make a choice: let it go or sue you in small claims. Like I said, I never heard it happening. I suppose it could, but I’ve never heard of it actually happening because somebody ignored the civil demand letter. Typically, they just let it go.
What happens if you do pay them? Does that make things somehow better? Well, if you do pay their civil demand letter, hopefully they’ll send you a release which indicates that they’re not going to sue you in small claims – something they wouldn’t do anyway – but they’ll give you a letter saying, “Okay now we’re not going to sue you,” but it will not do anything to any criminal investigation or criminal cases. Paying it will not stop prosecution in the criminal courts. The other side is true though – not paying it doesn’t mean the police will become involved if they weren’t, so if you ignore it, it doesn’t mean that suddenly they’re going to rush off to the police and file a report and have you criminally charged – they can’t do that.
Typically, if you’re going to be charged with a crime, it is because the police were involved on the day they accused you of shoplifting and you would have been contacted right then and there by the police. So paying it doesn’t stop anything to do with the criminal prosecution, it just stops something from happening in Small Claims Court that was never going to happen the first place.
If you were arrested or cited and you have to appear in criminal court in Orange County or Southern California, give me a call. My phone number is 714-532-3600 or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The contact links and information is below. I hope this helps, and if you have questions about the civil demand letter, talk to your attorney or contact me.