Welcome to the third entry in a multi-part blog series about misdemeanor shoplifting in Georgia. We discussed what constitutes shoplifting under Georgia law, what to expect in court after you’ve been arrested for shoplifting, and what sentence you may receive if you either plead guilty or are found guilty of shoplifting (fingers crossed for a Diversion offer from the State).

Civil Demand Letters

Today I want to talk about Civil Demand Letters. Let’s say you have been accused of shoplifting from Wal Mart. You bonded out of jail and hired the Law Office of Scott Smith to defend you, so you’re feeling relieved and hopeful about resolving your case.

Then one day, soon after your arrest, you receive a letter in the mail from Wal Mart’s Corporate Loss Prevention Office. The letter is about the shoplifting accusation. In strongly-worded terms, it says Wal Mart is prepared to seek civil judgement against you in the monetary amount of the item (or items) you’re accused of stealing.

Scared and confused, you call your attorney at Scott Smith’s Office. After all, your attorney is taking care of the shoplifting so why is Wal Mart even contacting you? This is a scenario I handle frequently with clients accused of shoplifting. And it’s a confusing one. That’s because shoplifting charges exist in the worlds of both criminal and civil law.

What Does This Mean?

The State of Georgia can pursue criminal charges against you for (allegedly) shoplifting from Wal Mart. Criminal charges contemplate the deprivation of your freedom, meaning the worst-case scenario would be going to jail.  At the same time, Wal Mart, as a civil plaintiff, can sue you for damages (the idea being they suffered a financial loss from you stealing their merchandise). Unlike criminal charges, civil damages are for money. So Wal Mart would sue you for the cost of the item(s) you’re accused of stealing. Even more confusing, Wal Mart can sue you for the cost of the item(s) you allegedly stole even if they got the item back, or even if the item never left the store.

Often, these strongly-worded, bullying letters make a scary situation for my clients even scarier. But I’m here to tell you not to worry.

Do Not Worry

In a shoplifting case, your main concern is the criminal charge. With Scott Smith’s Office representing you, your criminal charge will easily be resolved. Wal Mart can, indeed, take action to sue you for monetary damages in the amount of the item you allegedly stole. But in the 18 years this office has existed (and in my two years of practicing criminal law), we have never seen a big store like Wal Mart actually sue for civil damages. That’s partially because the filing fee alone (to file suit in court) is more than the amount of money they’d win at trial.

Essentially, stores like Wal Mart send these letters in an effort to intimate people into paying them money. Moreover, some of my clients have responded to the letters by sending money thinking that doing so will resolve their case, not realizing the criminal charge has nothing to do with the civil demand letter.

What Do I Do?

In these situations I advise my clients that I will call the corporate loss prevention office to tell them my client is represented by counsel. That way all letters are sent to me rather than my client (which eases a lot of stress). I also advise my client not to pay the money demanded in the letters. This is important to defending your case, as the State could use that payment as an admission of guilt against you at trial. Finally, note that stores like Wal Mart only have two years to file suit against you for civil damages suffered as a result of your alleged shoplifting.

If you or someone you know has received a civil demand letter contact our office today for a free consultation.

by Sarah Armstrong