Arrested for Shoplifting? How to Handle a Civil Demand/Fine - Penal Code § 490.5

If you were arrested for shoplifting from a large department store (Kohl's, Macy's, Target, Walmart) chances are you will receive a letter DEMANDING that you pay some exorbitant fee OR ELSE. This article explains what to do in that situation.  

ignore the letter!

You do not owe the money that the letter demands.  The only time you would ever owe the money demanded is if you were taken to court and a judgment was rendered ordering you to pay the amount demanded.  Without a judgment, you don't owe any money.  Further, it is astronomically unlikely that you'll ever be taken to court for that money.  Take the letter and build a paper airplane, build a fire, or put it in the bottom of your cat's litter box.  Don't respond to it.  

Failing to respond to the letter will not have an impact on any criminal proceedings.  

don't call them, talk to them, or make any "deals"!

In this circumstance, you're essentially dealing with a debt collection agency that is trying to collect a debt that you have no legal obligation to pay.  Their letters will get more stern - they'll threaten to hurt your credit, to take legal action, and to press criminal charges.  None of that will happen.  Pick up their calls, tell them you'll only communicate with them in writing, and hang up.  They're really just hoping to scare you into paying them.  That's how they make money.  DO NOT agree to pay them anything over the phone, as that can result in a legally binding contract.  

I used to recommend offering to pay $50 to just make these bottom feeders go away. However, it has come to my attention that some people have sent in "settlement" checks, only to have them returned along with a demand for more money.  As such, I don't recommend negotiating a settlement.  

but they're threatening to press criminal charges!

Your decision to pay the fine or not will not have any impact on any criminal proceedings.  The decision to file criminal charges rests with the district attorney in the county in which the shoplifting occurred.  Your failure to pay the fine will not have any impact on whether charges are filed or not, and your failure to pay won't result in a harsher criminal sentence.  

Further, if one of these collection firms threatens you with criminal prosecution should you fail to pay, that's criminal extortion under California law.  If that happens to you, I urge you to report the firm to the Federal Trade Commission and the California Attorney General, here:

Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, Washington, DC 20580-0001
Attorney General's Office, California Department of Justice, Attn: Public Inquiry Unit, P.O. Box 944255 Sacramento, CA, 94244-2550.

 

. . . and they want legal fees!

Penal Code § 490.5 governs the recovery of damages after a shoplifting incident. Penal Code § 490.5 does not allow for recovery of legal fees.  They're trying to scare you into paying.  

will they actually take me to court?

Again, the odds of being taken to court are astronomically low.  According to one figure, the odds are 10:1,200,000.  Further, the claim would be in small claims court.  Attorneys aren't allowed in small claims court.  Therefore, Target, Kohl's, Macy's, etc. would have to send one of its corporate directors out to small claims court to prove its claim.  This isn't going to happen.  

final thoughts

This post only applies to California Law, and demands/claims made under Penal Code § 490.5 I am not licensed to practice in any state other than California, and your state may have different laws regarding civil recovery.  Your circumstances may be very different than what is described herein.  For instance, if the store incurred other losses as a result of your actions in excess of the limits set forth in Penal Code § 490.5 or a store employee was injured, please contact a lawyer immediately.  This article should not be taken as specified legal advice but merely as a guide, and does not create an attorney-client relationship.  

If you are facing a shoplifting charge in Temecula, Murrieta, Wildomar, Menifee, Perris, San Jacinto, Moreno Valley, Riverside, Corona, Norco, Indio, or any other city in Riverside County, feel free to give me a call or to fill out the case evaluation form below to discuss your legal options.  If you have received a civil demand/fine and have questions, feel free to contact me as well.  Good luck!

Posted by Mike Donaldson.