How should I respond to a demand letter regarding a petty theft incident?

UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022

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How should I respond to a demand letter regarding a petty theft incident?

I was recently arrested for petty theft and have an upcoming court date. Now I have received a letter from a law firm claiming to represent the store and they are seeking a payment from me. If I do not

pay, they are threatening a civil suit against me. They say I have 20 days to contact them. How should I respond to this? I can’t pay what they are asking for.

Asked on October 1, 2016 under Criminal Law, California


M.D., Member, California and New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 6 years ago | Contributor

This letter is known as a "civil demand". These demands are routinely made but rarely acted on. In other words, your chances of being sued are slim so you can ignore it if you want to. Just know that if you don't pay after this first letter, you will probably get second and it will likely request an even higher amount. Again, you can choose to ignore it. However, if you decide to make payment, pay no more than a nominal sum, for example $50 or so, depending on the value of the merchandise. Put this in a letter to them and don't speak with them directly, as these people are notorious for their threatening tactics. Additionally, if you choose to pay and do so before your court appearance, such a payment will not negatively affect the case. Further, if the court orders restitution, make sure to present proof of the civil demand payment so that you can argue tht no additional restitution is owed. At this point, you may want to consider obtaining legal representation. An experienced criminal law attorney can defend against the charge on a technicality and possibly get it dismissed. At the very least, they can be instrumental in arranging an alternative sentence for you, which can leave you with no criminal record or at least the ability to clear it. 

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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