If you have ever been caught shoplifting, it is a stressful experience. You were confronted by store security; detained and questioned; and, in many cases, arrested and handcuffed by police. You have been issued a trespass notice so that you cannot go into any of the chain’s stores for at least a year. You now have to go to court, hire a lawyer, perhaps break the embarrassing news to your family.
Then you get a letter in the mail threatening to sue you.
Many large department stores, like Wal-Mart, The Bay, Home Depot and others, have contracted with a private law firm to demand compensation from shoplifters. The lawyer sends you a letter demanding payment, usually $500 within 30 days. In the Toronto area, the letter is usually sent out by a lawyer named Patrick K. Martin. The letter refers to the billions of dollars in costs that corporations have to payfor the prevention, interdiction and losses to stores from shoplifting every year. And because you have been charged with shoplifting, the store wants you to pay for that, even if the items you took were retrievedintact, and the store did not actually lose anything.
Is this legal? Can the store make me pay?
The answer to that is No, the store cannot force you to pay. Lawyers who are hired to send out demand letters, want to scare you into sending the money. They threaten to sue you if you do not comply, and if you do not pay within the time specified in their letter, the amount they demand goes up, from $500 to, say, $750 for example.
Will I get sued if I don’t pay?
Probably not. It is expensive to sue. A large company like Wal-Mart cannot sue every shoplifter. To pay lawyers to draft and file a claim, and take the case through the court process, costs thousands of dollars. And even if the store were to choose to do so and won the case, the damages awarded would be minimal because usually the theft is pretty small, and in many cases the items were recovered. So it is not worth the cost to the company to sue you, which is why they hope that by threatening you with a lawyer’s letter, you will pay up. Apparently enough people, scared by the lawyer’s demand letter, choose to pay, thus making this practise of legal threats financially worthwhile.
However, just because it is unlikely that the company will sue you doesn’t guarantee that they won’t. Retail corporations do on occasion choose to spend the money to sue, to act as a warning to others. The odds are really small that you will be the unlucky person who gets sued, but it can happen.
So should I pay? Or ignore the letter?
That’s your decision. (And remember: this blog is an opinion column, not legal advice). But if you ignore the letter, you may get another one, demanding a higher amount this time. You might find this stressful. But the odds are, if you don’t pay, nothing will happen. As it is, you are already paying a price from being arrested, charged, and going through court. There will be a consequence, anywhere from diversion with community service to a sentence, imposed by the justice system. The store, usually part of a giant corporation, has already accounted for your theft by charging higher prices to customers. So one way to look at their demand for payment, is that they are “double-dipping”.
Regardless of whether you choose to give in to their demand, and what happens with your court case, the best course of action in future is not to steal. But you know that now…
For more information on this issue, please click on the link below to an article from the Toronto Star.
Arun S. Maini is a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor with over 20 years of experience. He has defended many people charged with shoplifting.