When a person is accused of theft, often a civil demand letter will be sent to the individual saying “we won’t press charges if you pay us $200.” Many ask if this is legal. Unfortunately, the answer is “yes.” ORC 2307.61 permits recovery of damages for retail stores regardless of criminal prosecution. This statute is often used by loss prevention officers to coerce confessions (“sign this paper stating that you stole an item from this store, pay us $50, and we won’t press charges”), which are later used to obtain guilty pleas to theft offenses in court. If not confronted in the store, retail outlets often send a civil demand letter to the accused’s residence where the store threatens legal action if the accused doesn’t pay the store money. Doesn’t this sound like extortion?
Shoplifting costs stores billions of dollars a year. In an effort to combat these costs, the Ohio legislature enacted the above mentioned law permitting a store to recover civil damages from a shoplifter. The first question asked by every person who receives this civil demand letter is, “should I pay it?” A few questions need to be answered: (1) Are the stores entitled to payment? (2) What happens if you pay it? (3) What if I don’t pay it?
Are They Entitled to It?
Under ORC 2307.61, the store is entitled to it. If you refuse to pay it, the store can take you to court and obtain a judgment against you. However, they cannot destroy your credit, garnish your wages, or put a lien on your house, car, etc. without first obtaining this judgment. Furthermore, this is a “civil” matter and, thus, refusing to pay will not impact any criminal case against you. The next question is “will the store take me to court?” The answer to this question is often “no,” which will be explained further below.
What Happens if I Pay it?
The civil demand letter will often state that the store won’t press charges or pursue further legal action if the person pays the store. These are misleading statements. The store can file a criminal complaint. However, the store cannot press criminal charges. That decision is left to the police investigating the incident (if that has even occurred) and the prosecutor. The decision on whether to press charges is not within the store’s discretion, regardless of what they might tell you. This frequently leads to the question of “why was I charged when I paid the store?” Well, the store said they would not press charges, but the store doesn’t have that power, which allows them to receive payment from you while any criminal case continues.
When the store says they won’t pursue further legal action, they generally mean they won’t pursue a civil case or attempt to obtain a judgment. Remember, however, that civil and criminal cases are very different. The pursuit of a criminal case is largely removed from the store’s hands, but a civil case can be pursued at the store’s discretion. Therefore, you could pay the store the money that was demanded in the civil demand letter and still have law enforcement pursue a criminal case against you. The likelihood of a civil case being pursued, however, is remote for the reasons discussed below.
What if I Don’t Pay it?
If you decide to not pay the store, the store has the ability to bring a civil case against you. Is this likely to happen? No. The reality is that the store is not interested in pursuing a claim against a person unless the amount exceeds $1000. Most thefts are of less expensive items and if the store takes you to court, they are likely to win only a small amount of money (i.e., $200-$300). To obtain this judgment, and eventually receive payment, they will have to pay an attorney hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Thus, it makes little financial sense for the store to pursue a civil case. This is why a civil demand letter is sent. It costs the store almost nothing to send a civil demand letter threatening legal action if the store is not paid, and many people believe they must pay the money. However, actually pursuing the civil matter in the event that the person refuses to pay the store is unlikely because of the expense. Moreover, the store sometimes puts forth this blitzkrieg to hide the fact that the loss prevention officer at the store engaged in an illegal seizure of the alleged shoplifter, which opens the store to civil liability.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio Theft Defense Lawyer
If you have been accused of shoplifting, you have the right to consult with an attorney. Loss prevention officers are not law enforcement. They will not read you your rights, but they will use your statements against you. If a loss prevention officer approaches you, or you receive a civil demand letter, contact an attorney and do not speak with anyone. Attorney David Johnson of Johnson Legal, LLC represents individuals accused of theft offenses in Columbus and Delaware, Ohio. If you have been charged with a theft offense in Columbus or Delaware, Ohio, call Johnson Legal, LLC at (614) 987-0192 and speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Attorney David Johnson will discuss your case and assist you in fighting the charges.