Civil Demand Letters

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“Help!  My son/daughter/brother/sister/friend got caught shoplifting.  The store sent us a letter saying if we pay them $200 they won’t press charges.  What should we do?” What you’ve just received is known as a “civil demand letter.”  Shoplifting costs stores billions of dollars a year.

In an effort to combat those costs, the Ohio legislature enacted a law letting a store recover civil damages from a shoplifter.  The question every recipient of this demand asks is, “should I pay it?”

Are they entitled to it?

Yes.  The law says that they are entitled to it.  If you don’t pay it, they can take you to court and get a judgment against you which they can then use to collect.  They can NOT ruin your credit, put a lien on your house or car, or garnish your wages without first taking you to court to get this judgment. Will they take you to court?  Probably not, as I’ll explain below.

What if I pay it?

In many, if not most, cases the letter contains some sort of statement that the store won’t pursue further action, or maybe that they won’t press charges.  The former is a half-truth, the latter is completely misleading.  When they say they won’t pursue further action, they typically mean that they won’t take you to court in a civil case to get that judgment I just mentioned.  But keep in mind that civil cases and criminal cases are different.  If you’re busted for shoplifting and the police are called, then the decision to press criminal charges is out of the store’s hands.  The police and prosecutor will be making that call from then on, regardless of what the store says.  This leads to the very frequent confusion I see when a client asks “why was I charged?  The store told me if I paid I wouldn’t be charged.”  Well, that’s not exactly what the store said.  Or if it is, they lied.

What if I don’t pay it?  Will they come after me?

Maybe.  How many times have I seen it happen since I’ve been in practice?  Zero.  If they take you to court, they could win a couple hundred bucks from you.  They’ll have to pay a lawyer a couple thousand bucks to sue you for that couple hundred bucks.  But that could change.  At some point, the retail industry could decide that the deterrent effect of paying lawyers to sue the crap out of shoplifters actually saves them money overall.  If that happens, all bets are off.