Caught shoplifting, but police were not called. Do I have to pay a fine?

I have been asked many times about this exact scenario.  You were caught or detained for shoplifting, but they did not call the police.  They said you’d get a letter in the mail with a fine that you had to pay.  What is that? Do you have to pay them?  Can they still call the police and press charges later?

Can the store still “press charges” for shoplifting if they didn’t call the police when it happened?

If the police weren’t called initially, the odds are very much in your favor that there will be no criminal charges and therefore nothing on your record to deal with. Could they call the police and make a police report later? Sure, but that is by far the exception to the rule.  Keep in mind that the store cannot “press charges” – only the District Attorney or City Attorney can file criminal charges.  All the store could do would be to make a police report that may get forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for review and the possible filing of charges, but the store cannot directly file criminal charges against you.

They said I had to pay a fine. 

The “fine” they’re referring to is a civil demand letter. The Penal Code authorizes a merchant to “demand” up to $500 plus costs in a shoplifting incident. The store itself may send something from their “legal department” or they may contract with one of a few law firms that handle these situations. These firms are typically out of state and only have a local attorney’s name on their letterhead as “of counsel” so they can legally make these demands in California.

There was one particular firm out of Florida that was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying they send out over a million of these “demand” letters a year. Of those, they filed less than 10 lawsuits. Not 10 percent. Not ten thousand. Ten. The odds are overwhelming that if you just ignore their demands, nothing will come of this. They may send several letters, each sounding more intimidating and with increasing amounts they’re asking for. If you keep ignoring them, they have to make a choice – let it go (they almost always do) or actually follow through.

What’s their option if they really want to go forward? Small claims court. Here’s the thing though… attorneys cannot and do not get involved in Small Claims cases. So – these law firms are essentially all bark and no bite. In fact, some advertise their services on their websites as “litigation free” collections. That’s code for “we don’t actually sue people.” Instead, they operate on volume and intimidation, hoping people will just send in the hundreds of dollars they’re asking for. Some people pay thinking it will make a criminal case go better (it won’t necessarily) or that they “have” to (you don’t).

I’ve personally never heard of anyone actually being sued for ignoring the civil demand letters. If you are that one in a million and they do file a small claims case against you, you can always settle then. Or… you can go to trial and make them prove their damages. I assume they got all the merchandise back undamaged, put it right back on the shelf and aren’t really out any money aside from the time it took the store personnel to deal with you. What’s that? Maybe a couple of employees wages for a couple of hours? Can they get filing fees against you? Sure. Even if you went to trial and lost, the amount you’d be ordered to pay will in all likelihood be far less than they’re demanding in their letters.

I participate in several state-wide and national online forums for attorneys.  The overwhelming consensus is to ignore these letters. They may send a few and may even call you if they have your phone number. Screen your calls and ignore the letters. It costs that law firm to send out the letters – and that comes out of their cut of any money sent in – so they won’t waste too much on you if you don’t respond.

Should you get one of these demand letters and you still have questions, a phone call or face to face meeting with a local criminal defense attorney will probably set your mind at ease as you continue to ignore the demands.

Don’t ignore everything though…

Be sure you know what you’re ignoring though. If you do get something from either the District Attorney, City Attorney, the police department or the court, don’t ignore those. That means there is in fact something going on that you have to deal with. If you are charged, it’s time for a lawyer. If you’re under investigation, it’s also time for a lawyer and to keep your rights in mind – say nothing to anyone about this except your attorney in confidence.

If theft charges are filed against you…

Now, it’s time for action.  A theft conviction can have lasting, negative consequences.  Even in the face of strong evidence against you, there may be legal, factual or other defenses.  Our goal is to help you avoid a conviction if at all possible.  If charges are filed, it’s time for a lawyer.  Give me a call or send an email to discuss your case.  We can set up a time to talk and discuss what your options are and how best to proceed.


For more information, please see this post:  Shoplifting and civil demand letters (Audio podcast)

Joe Dane


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