Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I received a civil demand letter. What do I do?

“I made a mistake.   I was caught trying to shoplift.  I gave the merchandise back, and was released.  I thought this was all behind me, until I received a letter in the mail demanding payment.  What is a civil demand letter, and what should I do about it?”

What is a civil demand letter
The letter will identify you, and accuse you of theft.  The letter will demand a return of the merchandise (if not already returned), payment equal to the value of the merchandise (if the merchandise was destroyed), payment for the lost time/wage of the employee(s) who apprehended you, and payment of a civil penalty equal to twice (2x) the value of the stolen items.  See, the Maryland Courts & Judicial Article of the Maryland Code § 3-1302.

What happens if I pay the amount demanded?
If you pay the demand, the store cannot make any further civil demands against you relating to the same theft.  See, Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. Code § 3-1304.  However, that payment can be used against you in subsequent criminal proceedings to demonstrate your guilt.  See, Maryland Rule 5-804(b)(3).  Payment of the civil demand does not preclude criminal prosecution.  See, Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-1306(b).

What happens if I ignore the demand letter?
If you ignore the demand, the store may sue you, civilly.  They must file a small claim in district court, and serve you with a summons.  If they are successful, they may recover attorney’s fees and court costs, regardless of your ability to pay.  See, Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-1305(b).  Generally, however, the time and effort required to prosecute a small claim deters such lawsuits.

What can happen, regardless of my decision?
Whether you pay the civil demand or not, the store can swear-out a criminal complaint, and you may be charged with a crime.  Maryland’s consolidated theft statute establishes maximum penalties based on the value of the items stolen:
Max Penalty
 < $100
90 days / $500
< $1,000
18 months / $500
$1,000 - $9,999
10 years / $10,000
$10,000 - $99,999
15 years / $15,000
25 years / $25,000
See, Maryland Criminal Law Article § 7-104.

If you are charged with an incarcerable crime, you are entitled to a lawyer, regardless of your income.  Hire a private attorney, or apply for representation through the Office of the Public Defender.