I was caught stealing from Walmart. It was my first time ever stealing and it won't happen again. The police weren't involved and I got off with just a warning. I still received a civil demand though.
What if I am unable to pay the fine in time? Do I even have to pay it at all since there were no police involved?
Family Law Attorney
Ignore it. They have right to send this letter by quirk in the law favoring retailers, but it is essentially a scam, since you likely didn't steal that much, nor are they likely to go to the expense of suing you. They hope you get scared and pay it. Most of us here uniformly advise clients to ignore these things.
To questioners from West Virginia & New York: Although I am licensed to practice in your state, I practice on a day-to-day basis in Massachusetts. I answer questions in your state in areas of the law in which I practice, and in which I feel comfortable trying to offer you assistance based on my knowledge of specific statutes in your state and/or general principles applicable in all states. It is always best, however, to work with attorneys and court personnel in your own area to deal with specific problems and factual situations.
Your question is similar to many others on this site, which have been well answered by many attorneys. At bottom, this is a legal scam, and has been well-described in a recent Wall Street Journal Article, which has been linked to several of the best of those answers. I don't have the link, but you can probably find it on a search engine, "Civil Demand Wall Street Journal". Also, "Michael Ira Asen Scam" might work.
In a nutshell, throw it in the trash and forget about it, as well as any subsequent correspondence, other than an actual small claims court summons (vanishingly unlikely). If you get a summons, which you won't, go to court, wait for them to put on their first witness (they won't have one). If they then call you as a witness, invoke your Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent, which you can legitimately do. Then ask for a dismissal (with prejudice). You'll get it. Don't discuss the case with anybody at court, except to give your name, invoke the privilege, and request the dismissal.
First of all, do not respond to that letter whatsoever. Do not call, do not write, and do not enter any information on the website "recoverypayments.com" which is probably referenced in your letter.
If you were not arrested or charged with any crime, the likelihood is that you are out of the woods as far as criminal prosecution is concerned.
As far as a civil suit is concerned, the value is ordinarily so low it does not justify them filing suit against you, so you have very little risk of being sued.
Some states have a civil penalty provision which allows them to make these demands. They have exploited it in other states, like Massachusetts which doesn't have such a law, because it intimidates people and they often pay up. A 45-cent stamp yields them a $250 recovery, a great return on their investment.
You may get a letter from a lawyer or the Walmart manager notifying you to stay out of their store, in which case you must obey it or risk being charged with trespassing, but those letters are usually reserved for serial-shoplifters, troublemakers, gangs, or big-ticket organized thieves.
So chuck the letter and behave better from now on.
Attorney Mike Tremblay www.attorneytremblay.com 508-485-4500
Lawsuit / Dispute Attorney
The retailers are allowed by statute to make the demand. It is not a scam as suggested, but a legitimate demand allowed by law. I attached a link to the statute below. This is a tort, so any action against you would need to be commenced within 3 years of the incident.
However, most people do exactly as stated and ignore the letters. If you do not pay voluntarily they will need to pursue a court action against you and then try and collect. If you do not have the ability to pay, then you would not likely be ordered to pay by the Court.
DISCLAIMER: This answer is provided in response to a "hypothetical" question and provided for general, informational purposes and does not create an attorney/client relationship. The information presented is not legal advice and may change based additional information and research. It is recommended that you speak to an attorney to discuss your specific legal issues.
Criminal Defense Attorney
I generally advise clients to ignore these civil demand letters. You don't owe them anything. In order for you to owe them something they would have to sue you (in some jurisdictions prove damages which they most likely couldn't do), and win.
Even if they could win, the cost of pursuing this is substantially greater than any amount they can possibly recover, so they usually don't. They send out these letters because it doesn't cost much and they are hoping that you don't know better and simply send them the money. Nothing will happen to you if you don't pay it. Take a look at an article in the Wall Street Journal at the link provided below.