I received a civil demand letter. What do I do? (in Maryland)
“I made a mistake. I was caught trying to shoplift. I gave the merchandise back, and was released. I thought this was all behind me, until I received a letter in the mail demanding payment. What is a civil demand letter, and what should I do about it?”
What is a civil demand letter?The letter will identify you, and accuse you of theft. The letter will demand a return of the merchandise (if not already returned), payment equal to the value of the merchandise (if the merchandise was destroyed), payment for the lost time/wage of the employee(s) who apprehended you, and payment of a civil penalty equal to twice (2x) the value of the stolen items. See, the Maryland Courts & Judicial Article of the Maryland Code 3-1302.
What happens if I pay the amount demanded?If you pay the demand, the store cannot make any further civil demands against you relating to the same theft. See,Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. Code 3-1304. However, that payment can be used against you in subsequent criminal proceedings to demonstrate your guilt. See, Maryland Rule 5-804(b)(3). Payment of the civil demand does not preclude criminal prosecution. See, Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. 3-1306(b).
What happens if I ignore the demand letter?If you ignore the demand, the store may sue you, civilly. They must file a small claim in district court, and serve you with a summons. If they are successful, they may recover attorney's fees and court costs, regardless of your ability to pay. See, Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. 3-1305(b). Generally, however, the time and effort required to prosecute a small claim deters such lawsuits.
What can happen, regardless of my decision?Whether you pay the civil demand or not, the store can swear-out a criminal complaint, and you may be charged with a crime. Maryland's consolidated theft statute establishes maximum penalties based on the value of the items stolen, ranging from 90 days to 25 years.