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Civil Demand Letters in Shoplifting Cases – Penal Code 490.5 PC

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Mar 21, 2024

If you pay a civil demand letter for shoplifting in California, will it protect you from criminal prosecution? This is a common question and a hotly debated topic. 

If you are accused of shoplifting from a store, perhaps backed by video camera evidence, you may receive a civil demand letter from the merchant's attorney. 

California Penal Code 490.5 PC authorizes a law firm or company to send a civil demand letter if you are accused of shoplifting. This letter demands payment for any losses the retailer incurred because of your crime.

Civil Demand Letters in Shoplifting Cases – Penal Code 490.5 PC
PC 490.5 authorizes a company or law firm to send you a civil demand letter for shoplifting.

A shoplifting civil demand notice can order payment of up to $500 for the cost of the stolen item, any damaged merchandise, and any employee or loss prevention officer who handled the shoplifting case.

If you receive a civil demand letter, contact a criminal defense lawyer for help. If you are scared and make a quick payment in response to the letter, the payment might be considered an admission of guilt. Also, a payment does not prevent a store from pursuing criminal charges or a civil lawsuit.

This civil demand document typically seeks restitution for the alleged theft or damage as an alternative to taking matters to court. The question, however, is this: if you pay the demand, does this protect you from being charged with a crime after the fact? The short answer is no.

While prosecution is less likely if you pay a civil demand because the merchant typically has no reason to press charges if you pay it, the state can still technically charge you with a crime independently of the merchant.

Shoplifting is a crime under California Penal Code 459.5 PC. You commit shoplifting when you enter an open business and intend to steal merchandise worth $950 or less. Shoplifting is a misdemeanor that carries up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

What Is a Civil Demand Letter?

A civil demand letter is a legal instrument merchants use to recover losses associated with shoplifting without resorting to litigation. 

These letters, typically sent by attorneys representing the retail establishment, demand payment of a specified sum as compensation for the alleged theft. 

Civil Demand Letter

This amount often covers the value of the stolen goods if not recovered or returned in sellable condition and additional damages, sometimes including a penalty or recovery cost.

Simply put, in the context of shoplifting, a civil demand letter is when the store or their lawyer sends you a letter demanding payment for any losses the store incurred due to your alleged shoplifting case. 

This often occurs even if the merchandise was recovered and not damaged. As the name suggests, a civil demand letter involves a civil action instead of a criminal prosecution, and any payment given to the store is a form of civil recovery.

California law allows retailers to demand up to $500 in losses, regardless of the cost of the item that you allegedly took or attempted to steal. If you ignore a demand letter, Penal Code 490.5 PC authorizes the store to file a case in small claims court against you.

Civil vs. Criminal Matters

It's important to distinguish between civil and criminal matters to understand the implications of a civil demand letter. Civil cases generally involve disputes between individuals or organizations over legal duties and responsibilities, often seeking monetary compensation. 

They are separate from criminal cases, which deal with actions considered harmful to society and can result in penalties such as fines, probation, or imprisonment. 

Another helpful way to think of it is this: a civil case is brought against you by another individual or entity for a perceived wrong, while a criminal case is brought against you by the state for breaking the law.

What Happens if You Pay the Demand?

Paying the amount specified in a civil demand letter might seem like a straightforward way to avoid further complications. Indeed, paying a civil demand can protect you from being sued by the merchant for the loss they incurred due to the shoplifting incident.

 However, it does not automatically shield you from criminal prosecution. Even if the merchant chooses not to press charges, the state can still decide to pursue a criminal case based on the evidence at hand.

This means that even after satisfying the civil demand, one can still face criminal charges for shoplifting. This is because the agreement between you and the merchant does not extend to the criminal justice system. 

Even if the merchant doesn't press charges, the decision to charge you lies with the local prosecutor, not the merchant. Depending on the severity of the crime, criminal charges can lead to penalties such as fines, community service, probation, or even jail time. 

What Are Some Key Points to Consider With a Demand Letter?

  • Paying the demand does not give you legal immunity. Payment of a civil demand does not confer immunity from criminal prosecution. The decision to file criminal charges rests with the prosecutor, who may proceed based on evidence, regardless of the civil demand's status.
  • The merchant has sole discretion to sue you (civil action) or to press charges (request a criminal action). While many retailers use civil demands as a deterrent and a means to recover losses, their policies on pursuing criminal charges can vary. If satisfied with the civil resolution, some might not report the incident, but this is not a legal guarantee.
  • Prosecutors can act independently. Even if a retailer has no interest in pressing charges post-payment, the state can still prosecute if it deems the offense warrants it—for example, if you have prior shoplifting convictions.

What are Some Additional Considerations?

If you receive a civil demand letter for shoplifting, there are several additional factors to consider:

  • First—paying the demand doesn't equate to an admission of guilt. It is merely a way to compensate the retailer for their losses and avoid a potential lawsuit.
  • Second—not all civil demand letters result in lawsuits if they're unpaid. Some retailers may choose not to pursue the matter further, especially if the amount is small. However, ignoring a civil demand letter can lead to greater legal complications.
  • Third—consult with a legal professional if you're unsure how to respond to a civil demand letter. A lawyer can guide you based on your circumstances and help you navigate the complex legal landscape surrounding shoplifting cases.

Finally, it would be best to recognize that paying a civil demand may close the civil matter but not erase the possibility of criminal charges. Stay informed about your legal situation and any communications from law enforcement or prosecutors. 

If you are concerned you might face criminal charges for shoplifting, consult with a California criminal defense attorney immediately. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA..

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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