After you’ve been arrested for shoplifting at Macy’s, or Century 21, or Sephora, etc., you will eventually be released to the safety of your home. Within a week or so, you will receive a letter in the mail from a law firm. The letter will demand that you pay the retailer a civil penalty, up to $500, in connection with the alleged shoplift.
Some percentage of people who receive this letter will pay the civil penalty, because they’re afraid they’ll be sued if they don’t, and because they’re afraid they’ll owe the department store legal fees if they lose the lawsuit.
I have never known one of the law firms that write these letters to sue a client of mine who has refused to pay. It would be extremely inefficient for the law firm to do so.
The inefficiencies of suing for a maximum of $500 include: 1) paying nominal court fees; 2) paying support staff to draft necessary court documents; 3) paying lawyers to appear in court in connection with such lawsuits; 4) paying store security officers for time spent appearing in court as witnesses; 5) recovering nothing on cases that the retailers lose; 6) recovering nothing on cases that retailers win against judgment-proof defendants (alleged shoplifters who have no assets from which a money judgment could be recovered).
When my clients receive a demand letter, I respond with a letter advising the law firm to direct all future communications to me. Since lawyers can’t directly communicate with a person who is represented by counsel, the law firm stops writing to my client.
I know of no client of mine who has been sued for the civil penalty by any retailer.
The only situation I can imagine where it would be worth a retailer’s while to sue, would be where the alleged shoplifter is a famous person. Such a lawsuit could generate publicity, which might deter some people from shoplifting in the future. The value of the lawsuit to the retailer could be far greater than the $500 maximum penalty.
The bottom line is that you should not pay the civil penalty for shoplifting, unless your lawyer advises you otherwise.
Bruce Yerman is a New York City criminal defense attorney. If you would like to discuss shoplifting charges, contact Bruce for a free consultation: