Caught shoplifting – police weren’t called. Will I face charges? Fines?

I get lots of questions about shoplifting incidents.  Many times, the question is:  “I was detained by store personnel for shoplifting, but the police weren’t called.  They made me sign some papers and let me go, telling me I would have to pay a fine.  What is going to happen?”

Are the police going to be called?

If the police were not called the day of the incident, the odds are overwhelming that they won’t be involved and there will be no criminal prosecution. Could it happen? Yes, but that is exceedingly rare.

What is the “fine” they’re talking about?

The “fine” you’re talking about is a civil demand letter. The merchant is authorized under Penal Code section 490.5 to “demand” up to $500 in civil penalties following an allegation of shoplifting. You’ll likely get a letter either from the store’s legal department or from a law firm acting on behalf of the store. The letter will sound very intimidating and they will indicate that unless you pay them the hundreds of dollars they’re asking for, they will “pursue all legal remedies under the law” (or other official sounding language).

If you choose to pay them, it just means they won’t sue you in small claims. It won’t stop a criminal case (if there was going to be one).

If you choose to ignore the letter (and the two or three that may follow), they have a choice – either let it go or sue you in small claims.

The odds are overwhelming that they will just let it go. Why? Because it’s not worth their time. I assume they recovered the items you’re accused of taking and put them right back on the shelf for sale. Yes, they had their personnel deal with you for a period of time, but the time they put on this case isn’t worth the hundreds of dollars they are trying to get you to pay.

Why else won’t they pursue this in small claims? Because lawyers cannot get involved in small claims. They would have to file a lawsuit, serve you with a notice to appear and then send somebody from the store down to testify about what happened. Way too much work for the recovery they may get in small claims (not to mention trying to collect, etc.).

There’s one firm in Florida that was quoted in the Wall Street Journal – their practice is almost exclusively these “civil demand letters”. They send out about a 1.5 million letters per year. Of those million and a half cases, they file an actual lawsuit in court about 10 times. Not ten percent. Not ten thousand. Ten.

The odds are overwhelming that if you ignore the letter(s), they’ll eventually go away.

There’s another firm that promises the merchants they contract with a “litigation-free experience”. That’s code for “this won’t actually end up in court.”

The other document you signed is likely a trespass warning. Essentially, they’re saying you’re not welcome in the store any longer. If you go back, even to spend a thousand dollars on a shopping spree, you could be arrested for trespassing and face misdemeanor charges. I don’t know if the form indicates you’re not welcome for a year, three years or life (I’ve seen different time periods for different stores), but you’d be wise to shop elsewhere.

Watch your mail – if you do receive something either from the police or the court (or prosecutor’s office) regarding this, then it’s time for a good, local criminal defense attorney. Until then, stay away from the store, don’t discuss this matter with anyone and chalk this up to experience.


If the police were involved, you got a citation (ticket) or a letter from the prosecutor’s office – that you cannot ignore.  You’re potentially facing theft charges in court that can have serious consequences on your future.  If that happened, it’s definitely time for a lawyer.  Give me a call or send an email to discuss your situation.


Joe Dane, Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney


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