Civil claims and debt collectors after dismissed shoplifting charges?
November 17, 2011 7:22 AM Subscribe
Cousin arrested for alleged shoplifting. Charges dismissed, but civil claims persisted and sent to debt collector. Now what?
posted by anonymous to law & government (13 answers total)
We have spoken to a lawyer. He's unhelpful ("it's your decision, I'll do whatever I'm told"). I'm looking for advice about the likelihood of various outcomes rather than strictly legal advice. I understand that nobody here is our lawyer.
Several months ago, my cousin (an adult, and more like a little sister to me) was arrested for alleged shoplifting at a major retailer in New York state. She claims it was accidental, but the security guards obviously felt otherwise--I'm shocked, but I don't know why the store would go so far if they didn't think it was true.
She was arrested, but the criminal charges were dismissed (actually, adjournment in contemplation of dismissal--charges dismissed if she doesn't get in further trouble for 6 months). Her record is otherwise totally clean, so that shouldn't be a problem.
She got several letters from the store saying that she owed the department store $500 as a civil claim. She and the lawyer contacted the civil claims department to ask questions or discuss settling, but never got letters or phone calls returned.
The civil claims department eventually passed the "debt" on to an outside collections agency, which has been harassing her and refusing to answer questions. Her lawyer (family friend) is happy to write letters, would be happy to represent her in a civil suit, would generally be happy to do whatever the family wants--but he isn't offering any advice.
Our whole family is in agreement that we don't want a civil suit that becomes a matter of public record, but $500 is a lot for us. Plus my cousin maintains her innocence, the agency is incredibly nasty--and even if we did pay up, that's no protection; the store could still bring a civil suit at any point.
What's the likelihood of more aggressive collections action? Of what kind? What's the likelihood of a civil suit (and realistically, does it change if we pay)? If they do bring a civil suit, is this payment a sign of guilt?
Legally, can anyone explain to me how this differs from blackmail/extortion? Items never left store property and were still in salable condition. The collections agency claims she's liable because she signed a piece of paper that said she understood the store could seek redress. Her signature was under duress (security "suggested" police wouldn't be involved if she signed).
Any anecdotal evidence, permissible advice, or estimates of potential consequences would be great. Thanks so much.