This is a civl demand letter. Many states have statutes that authorize retailers to collect civil damages from shoplifters. However, many times the retailers don't sue the individuals for it because doing so would be cost prohibitive, or it would cost the retailers more money to sue than what they would collect.
Check with a local attoney to make sure of your obligations regarding the letter.
DISCLAIMER This answer is provided for educational purposes only. By using or participating in this site you agree and understand that there is no attorney client privilege between you and the attorney responding. This site cannot be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney that practices law in the State where this offense is charged; and, who has experience in the area of law you are asking questions about and with whom you would have an attorney client relationship. The law changes frequently and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The information and materials provided are general in nature, and may not apply to a specific factual or legal circumstance described in the question, or in the State where this charge is filed. I am an attorney licensed to practice in the State of New Jersey. Consult a local attorney if your case arises outside the State of New Jersey. If you found this answer to be HELPFUL then you can vote that this answer was helpful. If you found this answer to be the BEST ANSWER of all those presented, then you can vote that this answer was the best answer presented.
Most attorneys will tell you to ignore the civil demand letter. A civil demand is not a debt and you would only have to pay it if they successfully sued you. The likelihood of that happening is extremely small, if ever, especially if the store got the merchandise back.
Paying or not paying the civil demand will have no effect on any criminal actions which might be brought against you.
Frank W. Chen has been licensed to practice law in California since 1988. The information presented here is general in nature and is not intended, nor should be construed, as legal advice for a particular case. This posting does not create any attorney-client relationship with the author. For specific advice about your particular situation, please consult with your own attorney.
A frequent question asked by my potential clients facing a theft or shoplifting charge is whether they should pay the demand by the store for "costs" following an arrest. The letter you received was a "civil demand" letter oftentimes from a law firm, or a division of the store itself, that does nothing but send out these intimidating letters after a shoplifting incident, trying to get hundreds of dollars from the accused. Indeed, the California Penal Code has a provision that allows a merchant to make a demand of up to $500 from an individual accused of shoplifting in their store to recover “damages”. Those stores sometimes contract with law firms to crank out form letters, demanding outrageous sums of money. They hope you'll either think it will prevent criminal charges from being filed (it won't) or that it will mean that criminal charges will be dropped (they won't).
The general consensus in the criminal defense legal community is that the law firms that send these letters almost never do anything if you don't pay. One particular firm was quoted recently saying that they send out well over a million letters a year, but rarely file any actual lawsuits. The odds are overwhelming that if you ignore their letter (and the two or three that will follow with increasing amounts demanded), they will in many instances just drop it. You see, they know that even if they were to file a small claims case against you, they likely wouldn't get anything in a judgment or if they did, it would be far less than the hundreds of dollars they're asking for and it just isn't worth their time.
Are they entitled to the money? Probably not. Here is why, the store recovered the merchandise in undamaged condition and simply put it right back on the shelf to be resold. Their actual damages are almost always nothing. The store personnel involved in this situation were already on the clock, so no extra salary was paid to deal with you. Consequently, their actual damages are arguably zero.
Here is the bottom line. Paying it, should you feel compelled to, will guarantee that they won't file that lawsuit against you or continue to hound you for the money by sending letter after letter causing you much stress and worry.
This civil demand has absolutely nothing to do with criminal charges. If there is any actual restitution, you'll be required to pay that amount (not some inflated amount) through the Court. There have been instances where the store will go so far as to place a negative entry on the accused credit report, though this is rare and probably illegal unless you agreed to pay the amount or conceded the debt in some other manner.
One thing though is for sure, if you contact the store or the law firm/collection agency seeking the money then they'll know they've got you on the hook. By engaging with them in any way, either by phone or by mail), they will feel they have somebody who's willing to pay them and they will keep up their efforts to collect from you. You could advertently say something that could be construed as an agreement to pay, turning this into a different situation.
Either pay the amount demanded, if that gives you peace of mind, or ignore them completely. Paying off the demand is not an admission of guilt. The choice is yours.
Should you have any additional questions please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Matthew Ruff.
I agree with the others who advise you that, in al likelihood, you will not be sued for the $325 they are asking because it would cost them more to sue you than they would collect in a civil judgment. I advise my clients in California to ignore the letter(s) and only consult with an attorney if you are served with a summons and complaint to appear in small claims court--which has never happened to any of my clients. Also, remember that any payment by you does not prevent any criminal charges from being filed against you.
This advise is general in nature since I do not have specifics regarding your case. But most important of all, talk to an attorney either in person or telephonically before you go into court to discuss your options.