Civil Recovery Demand Letters for Shoplifting

Shoplifting and retail theft may consist of small monetary amounts but is a serious crime treated as larceny by the law and taken seriously by retailers. If you have been caught shoplifting in a store, you may have been told that you will receive a civil demand letter or you might be surprised to see one arrive in your mailbox. This article will examine shoplifting law, civil demand letters and answer questions about what to expect.

What is Civil Recovery?

In 2007, studies estimated that shoplifting accounted for $13 billion of losses for retailers along with $19 billion more in employee theft. Most stores must budget a significant amount of money to combat theft crimes. Expenses for theft prevention many include the following:

  • Hiring licensed loss prevention officers, the security guards you may see at the entrance and exits, a loss prevention manager on site;
  • Surveillance and security systems such as hidden cameras (CCTV), video recording devices such as DVRs (Digital Video Recorders) and other security equipment;
  • Cost of time and effort made by loss prevention employees in dealing with a shoplifter including apprehending the shoplifter, contacting the police and local law enforcement, time to complete paperwork;
  • Cost of legal expenses including having a law firm on retainer and paying their legal fees for civil demands and prosecution;
  • Losses that result from goods stolen that are recovered but not able to be made available for sale due to the poor condition of the goods or other reason;
  • Losses due to goods stolen but not recovered;

A retailer must find a way to recover the entire amount expended for loss prevention, including employee salaries and equipment. If you’re wondering why it might cost more money to buy a product in a store than you might expect, it is because the money expended to fight shoplifting and employee theft is built into the cost of the product.

As a result of this rampant problem, all states have enacted laws that empower retailers to be able to send letters demanding civil damages from shoplifters whom have been apprehended. Since retailers need to recover the significant costs of theft prevention and enforcement, they are quick to send civil demands to apprehended shoplifters for restitution (reimbursement) of the cost.

Civil Demand Letter

A “Civil Demand” or “Civil Demand Letter” is a letter that is frequently sent to a person caught shoplifting demanding reimbursement for the cost of enforcing shoplifting prevention programs. In many instances, a person who has been caught shoplifting will be told by store security that they will be receiving a civil demand in the mail shortly after their release. The letter is usually sent to most shoplifters, will arrive by mail and is sent either from the store or the store’s law firm.

The amount demanded in a civil demand will vary based upon state law, the store in issue, and the amount of the goods  that were or were attempted to be stolen. There are minimum and maximum amounts that a civil demand may contain, as set by state law. Typically the amount demanded will be greater than the cost of good stolen since the cost of enforcement of a program to prevent shoplifting and retail theft is included as well as legal costs.

Civil Demands and Criminal Charges

A civil demand is civil in nature – not criminal. Any criminal charges are a completely separate matter that arises out of the same event and handled by a government prosecutor in a criminal court. A civil demand may be sent by a store even if there has been no conviction of a shoplifter for a shoplifting or retail theft crime. In fact, under most state law a civil demand may also be sent without any initiation of a criminal prosecution by local law enforcement or by the store’s loss prevention unit.

Should I Pay the Civil Demand?

There isn’t any proper answer as to whether you should pay the amount in the civil demand. The amount, usually higher than most shoplifters expect, may be inflated beyond what is reasonable. If the amount is reasonable it is also possible that a store may not enforce the civil demand – but it is a gamble. If you choose to ignore the first letter, there will typically be a second letter with a higher amount demanded. If you ignore any subsequent letters, it is quite possible that you will be sued in civil court. When you get to court, it is possible that enforcement costs expenses and legal fees incurred by the store will be included in the amount of your ultimate liability. It’s a situation you may wish to resolve before it gets to this stage.

You may wish to negotiate the amount of the civil demand and it is not uncommon that the store and shoplifter can settle upon a compromise for less than the amount demanded. Sometimes the store may also allow for a payment plan as well. But it is extremely important to make sure that whatever is agreed upon is contained in a written agreement and that it is reviewed carefully and also provides you with a proper release when it is paid in full.

Consequences of a Shoplifting Conviction

While shoplifting  is a misdemeanor crime (punishable by less than one year in jail), it is a “crime involving moral turpitude” and can have some serious consequences. The US generally prosecutes more shoplifting cases than in other countries. If asked whether you have been arrested (or convicted) for a crime involving moral turpitude (“CIMT” for short), your answer will need to be “yes.” This could be damaging to anyone in an interview for employment, citizenship or for any other reason.

For those who are immigrants or have visa status, they may avoid being deported for a first offense under a “petty theft exception” but they will still likely be required to report the crime as a crime involving moral turpitude (a “CIMT” for short) on an I-94W form.

The crime does make you wait five years to show good moral character so that you can become a US citizen, so wait, stay out of trouble, become a citizen as soon as you can.

Should I Hire a Lawyer if I Receive a Civil Demand?

Shoplifting seems like a relatively minor incident for a small amount of money. But since it is a crime involving moral turpitude, there could be significant future consequences as you’ve read about in this article.  It is advisable to have the assistance of an experienced criminal lawyer, especially if a criminal prosecution may be in question. If the dollar amount on the civil demand is high, a good lawyer may be effective in reducing that amount. The potential savings that may result from negotiation by a professional might make it worth the cost of retaining the lawyer, who is also better equipped to handle a potential criminal prosecution.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq.

Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and former SVP of Zedge.net. He has published hundreds of articles online covering a variety of legal topics and regularly provides free legal advice at The Law Forums.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq. – has written posts on TheLaw.com Guide.