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I was caught shoplifting and charged with a misdemeanor. It is my first offense, what do I do?

San Bernardino, CA |

I was caught at Kohl's last week because I made the stupid decision to take $325 worth of merchandise. I was taken to the security office asked to take out all the stuff I took, and to sign a paper that stated why I decided to steal. They also had surveillance of me. I was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor but it is only my first offense. I definitely do not want to have that on my record! What are my options? I also received a civil demand to pay them $325... should I pay??

Attorney Answers 4


  1. Bottom line: you need a lawyer. If you hire none, they can appear on your behalf. Thereay be legal, factual or other defenses available. There may also be a way for them to get the case dismissed, reduced or changed so it doesn't have the same impact on you.

    Regarding the civil "fine":

    It's not a civil "fine" - it's a civil demand letter. California law allows a merchant to demand up to $500 following a theft incident. These letters are typically sent by the store or a law firm acting on their behalf. They are all bark and no bite. If you ignore the letter, they have to make a choice - let it go or file a small claims case against you. I have never heard of anyone actually being sued if they ignore the letter. Why don't they do anything? Because lawyers cannot get involved in small claims cases and it isn't worth the store's time to pursue a small claims case over such a minor amount. There is one law firm in Florida that does nothing but these kind of civil demand letters on behalf of stores. They were quoted in a Wall Street Journal article as sending out over one and a half million letters a year, but they filed less than 10 lawsuits. Not ten percent. Not ten thousand. Ten. The odds are overwhelming that they won't do anything. If you choose to pay their demand, it just means they won't sue you, but it will have no impact on any criminal prosecution. Paying it won't stop criminal charges from being filed and not paying it won't make a criminal case worse or cause charges to be filed if they weren't going to be in the first place.

    Discuss all this with your lawyer. Use the time now to find a good one.

    The above answer is for general information only and is based on the information you posted. Every case is fact dependent, so to get a thorough analysis of your situation, you will need to consult face to face with an attorney licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where the incident took place. Do not conclusively rely on any information posted online when deciding what to do about your case.


  2. Diversion may be available, which would mean that the petty theft would not show on your record as a conviction. You need a lawyer. If you can't afford one, the court should appoint the public defender.


  3. Hire an attorney to represent you in the criminal case and advise you whether to pay the civil demand. My opinion would be no.

    R. Jason de Groot, Esq. We do not have an attorney-client relationship. I am not your lawyer. The statements I make do not constitute legal advice. Any statements made by me are based upon the limited facts you have presented, and under the premise that you will consult with a local attorney. This is not an attempt to solicit business. This disclaimer is in addition to any disclaimers that this website has made. I am only licensed in Florida.


  4. My first piece of advice is to call a lawyer for a free consultation.

    In shoplifting cases it is wise to seek a civil compromise with the store ahead of criminal charges being filed by the DA's office. If such a compromise is reached, you or your lawyer will have stronger grounds to argue to the DA's office that the case shouldn't be filed.

    However, in my experience Kohl's is not amenable to civil compromises.

    Depending on your criminal history, you may be eligible for diversion. If you accept diversion, you will enter a guilty plea and likely have to pay a fine, attend and pay for a 1 day life skills class, and stay out of trouble for 3 months. After doing all of that, the court will change your
    plea from guilty to not guilty, and dismiss the case.

    As for the civil demand letter, it is only enforceable as a civil judgment in small claims court. If Kohl's goes through the trouble of filing a small claims action and hiring a representative to pursue the matter in small claims court, then you may end up with a civil judgment against you. But those are high transaction costs for Kohl's to undertake just to get $325. The key to remember is that the civil demand letter is not enforceable in criminal court.

    Again, I urge you to call a lawyer for a free consultation.

    -Shaun Sullivan

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