Shoplifting and Civil Demand Letters
Shoplifting and Civil Demand Letters: As an Orange County Shoplifting Attorney, my clients who have faced a shoplifting (Penal Code section 484), or the related petty theft (Penal Code section 466), or burglary charge (Penal Code section 459), often feel ashamed. They will typically get cited and released, with a future court date, and wonder what to do, or how best to prepare for their court date.
While waiting for their court date, they often get a surprise in the mail – a letter from a law firm representing the store, asking, as a civil demand, for their “losses” to be paid separately from the court case.
As a result, a frequent question asked by clients facing a petty theft, burglary, or shoplifting charge is whether they should pay the demand by the store for “costs” or “losses” following an arrest.
The letter received is usually phrased as a “civil demand” letter from a law firm, or in some cases, a division of the store itself, that does nothing but send out these form letters in a mass mailing after shoplifting incidents, trying to extort— I mean “obtain voluntarily”— hundreds of dollars from the accused.
What is the law regarding Shoplifting and Civil Demand Letters?
California Penal Code section 450 does have 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 actual “damages” directly incurred.
The hope is that the recipient will either think it will prevent criminal charges from being filed or that it will mean that criminal charges will be dropped. But neither of those is true. A payment of money to the law firm on behalf of the store has nothing to do with the criminal case, and the prosecutor (the DA in most cases) will never even be notified if a payment is made or not.
Having spoken to many, many other Orange County criminal defense attorneys, in email discussion groups, in court, and in conversation, not one, out of thousands, has ever heard of a store going after anyone in small claims court for not paying one of these letters. The law firms that send these letters almost never do anything if you don’t pay. One of the biggest firms admitted that they send out 1.2 million or more letters per year (like I said volume volume volume!), but have filed lawsuits, at most, on less than 10 people per year.
I used to send a response to the law firms asking for them to itemize the damages to the store, as the law states. They just send me, instead of the client, a second or third letter and then drop it. In most cases, the items stolen are recovered and put back on the shelf. Damages are zero. In some case where an employee has to work overtime just to prepare that one shoplifting report or a store employee is injured, there might be more damages, but this is very very rare. The stores are entitled to little more than their actual damages, which are usually nothing.
I do note that in years of practice as an Orange County shoplifting attorney, handling commercial burglary defenses, and petty theft cases, that most shoplifting and civil demand letters cases involve only a handful of stores – Nordstrom’s, Costco, Walmart, Fry’s, and Target. They seem to be particularly offensive. Nordstrom’s, for a while, actually sent a letter to thousands of people stating that there would be a civil or criminal prosecution if the extortion – I mean demand for money was not paid. That is clearly illegal under the Federal Debt Collection Act, and might even be extortion on their part. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission apparently made this practice stop.
The bottom line is – don’t pay the letter. Deal with the criminal shoplifting, burglary, or petty theft cases in court, heed the advice of your Orange County criminal defense lawyer, and ignore the letters you may receive.