Clients that are charged with retail theft frequently call me a few weeks after they are arrested and tell me that they received a letter from the store’s lawyers demanding money. They usually have two questions when they receive that letter. The first question is whether this means that if they pay the amount they are asking for will that mean that their case is dismissed? The second question is whether they have to pay the amount they are demanding. I will explain to you what I tell them and what that letter means.
When you are arrested and charged with a retail theft, or shoplifting in Illinois, this means that you have violated the criminal law of the State of Illinois. You will be assigned a court date and you will have to go to court to answer to the criminal charges. Under Illinois Law, that same retail theft gives the store, known as the retail establishment, the right to sue you in civil court for civil, or money damages. The very last part of the statute which deals with the crime of retail theft discusses the civil penalties available to the retail establishment. The amount of money the store’s lawyers can go after you for it is the actual retail value of that you stole, or tried to steal, plus anywhere between $100 and $1,000, plus their attorney fees and any court costs associated with the attempt to collect on this civil penalty. You will first find out that the store is trying to do this when you receive a letter from their attorneys informing you that they are seeking the civil penalty against you. That letter will inform you that you need to contact them to discuss payment. You need to understand that this proceeding is completely separate and distinct from the criminal case that you are facing. Paying the amount they are seeking will not halt the legal proceedings in the criminal case. As a matter of fact, the prosecutor handling your criminal case and the civil attorney representing the store for money damages have nothing to do with each other. They are not communicating with each other nor are they working together. Often, payment of the civil penalty is something that an experienced Illinois retail theft attorney can use when negotiating with the prosecutor to work out a favorable resolution to your criminal retail theft case. Showing a prosecutor proof that you paid the civil penalty can only help convince a prosecutor you have accepted responsibility and are trying to make good for the bad that you did. I have used it many times to help get a good deal for a client charged with retail theft. At the very least, it has never harmed the client to come to court with proof that they paid the civil penalty. It’s important to know that the statute provides that payment of the civil penalty cannot be used against you in the criminal case to prove that you admitted responsibility or confessed to the crime. From my experience, if you are unable to pay the full amount that the store is demanding, if you contact their attorneys they will work out reasonable payment plans.
What happens if you do not make the payment? First, you cannot go to jail for not making the civil penalty payment. Technically, the store has a right to file a lawsuit against you. But this rarely happens. That’s because the amount owed isn’t worth the expense to the store and their attorneys of filing a lawsuit against you. What frequently happens if you don’t make the payment is that they will turn over the claim to a collection agency. The collection agency will come after you just like any other collection agency would for any other type of debt owed. They may put this on your credit report and make annoying phone calls to your home and work to try to get you to pay.