Several times now, we have heard from clients in and around Jacksonville, Florida who have been arrested for the crime of theft at a department store that they have received letters threatening them with civil and/or criminal action if they do not pay money, often at least $200, to the department store within thirty days. Is this proper? We do not think it is the way these letters are worded. In fact, depending on the way the letter is worded, it may be illegal.
For example, we had a recent client who was arrested for allegedly stealing a shirt from a large, national department store with a couple of locations in Jacksonville, Florida. The shirt in question was returned to the department store undamaged immediately upon the arrest. Within a couple weeks of her arrest for petit theft, she received a letter from the loss prevention department of that store saying that “[o]nce liability is established under said statute, the retailer has ‘ . . . a cause of action for threefold the actual damages sustained and, in any such action, is entitled to minimum damages in the amount of $200 . . . .'” The letter goes on to demand $200 within thirty days from our client or face further legal action.
The statute the letter refers to is Florida Statutes, § 772.11. That statute does give department stores and others who have been the victim of theft crimes a right to civil action against the people who committed those crimes. However, what the statute requires and what is not mentioned in the letter these department stores send out is that the department store has to prove not just liability but also some injury. In other words, the department store has to prove that a person committed the theft AND ALSO that the store was damaged by the theft.
In most cases, people who commit theft, or shoplifting, at these stores are caught in the store or just outside of the store. In most cases, the merchandise is found with the offender and returned to the store in the same condition in which it was taken. In those cases, what damage or injury does the department store suffer? We would say that under the relevant statute, the department store suffers no injury and has no right to collect $200 or any amount from anyone arrested for theft or shoplifting. Of course, the letters the department stores send out conveniently omit this injury requirement.
What do we think the department stores are doing? We think they are sending this misleading and threatening letter to anyone arrested for theft or shoplifting in their stores, regardless of whether there is a legitimate basis for doing so, assuming a certain percentage of recipients will pay. We also suspect that many people are paying these requested amounts because of the threatening language used in the letters. However, before paying any amounts to a department store based on this kind of letter, you should understand your rights and determine whether this request for money is legitimate, or even legal. One other question I would raise is whether paying the amount requested could be used against a criminal defendant in court as an admission of guilt. This is one more reason to talk to a lawyer who understands these issues before responding to any such letter.