The small amount of money usually involved in retail theft might encourage people to think of shoplifting charges as “no big deal.” The law doesn’t share this opinion, however—nor do retailers.
If you have been caught shoplifting, you may have been informed that you will receive a civil demand letter in the mail. Or you might be surprised to discover one of these letters in your mailbox after your arrest. After receiving the letter, it’s important to understand the laws surrounding civil demand to figure out how best to proceed.
What is a Civil Demand Letter?
Civil demand letters are part of a process called civil recovery. This is something that occurs outside or in addition to the criminal process. In terms of shoplifting, it is when retailers attempt to recover lost funds from a theft through civil courts.
Retailers lose a great deal of money to shoplifters, so it makes sense they would try to recover some of the lost value. Recent statistics indicate that $13 billion of merchandise is lost to shoplifting every year in the United States. This number does not include the $18 billion lost to employee theft.
It is also very expensive for stores to take measures to prevent shoplifting. Some related costs include:
- Hiring loss prevention staff
- Surveillance and security equipment (like metal detectors, magnetic tags, and security cameras)
- Lost employee time while apprehending and prosecuting a shoplifter
- Damaged, unsellable goods from shoplifting (e.g. if a shoplifter took an item out of its package or cut the magnetic tag of a garment)
- Legal fees for civil demands and prosecution
To effectively run their business, retailers must find some way to compensate for stolen goods and associated costs. Civil demand is a tool stores may use to attempt to get some of their money back.
According to Colorado Revised Statute 13-21-107.5, adults and emancipated minors accused of shoplifting are civilly liable to a retailer for actual damages, plus a penalty between $100 and $250. If a minor is accused of shoplifting, his or her parents may be liable for the civil demand.
Some retailers have a policy of always demanding the maximum amount they can, and may increase the amount demanded if the original demand is ignored. Often large retail companies have a department dedicated to civil recovery across several states, so you may receive a letter from an out of state address.
Civil Recovery vs. Criminal Charges
A civil demand is a civil matter—meaning it is separate from any criminal charges. A store may also choose to file a criminal complaint with the police. Some major retailers (as well as private stores) have a policy of filing criminal charges for every shoplifter.
The store may also be more inclined to file a criminal complaint if they believe the shoplifter does not intend to pay restitution for the stolen items. After a criminal complaint is filed, a district attorney or prosecutor reviews the complaint and decides whether to charge the case.
Since civil demands are separate from any criminal proceedings, if no criminal charges are filed, that does not mean that the store cannot sue you in a civil court. Likewise, if the store does not pursue a civil lawsuit against you, it does not mean that you will not face criminal charges. You can face criminal charges even if you pay your civil demand.
What Should I Do If I Receive a Civil Demand?
If you have received a civil demand letter, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney. He or she can give you the best advice for your situation.
In some cases, it may be better not to pay a civil demand if a criminal investigation is open against you, as this may be considered an admission of guilt.
The reality is that most stores do not take every unpaid civil demand case to court. It is too time-consuming, and often not worth the legal fees. That being said, it can be a risky move to ignore a civil demand—the company can increase the amount of money demanded until it far exceeds the original fine.
In some cases it may be possible to settle with the company for an amount less than that demanded. In other cases, the store may agree to a payment plan.
Ultimately, it is up to you whether you want to take the risk of ignoring a civil demand letter. Consult with an attorney to talk about what choice is best for your situation.
If you’ve been arrested for shoplifting, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. In addition to civil fines, you could face harsh criminal punishments. Get in touch with us today.