Has prosecution of criminals become more about making money?

Majority of shoplifting crimes involve merchandise under $200, NASP says

HOUSTON – Jeff Moore has seen handcuffs slapped on a lot of perpetrators over the years.

"I've seen people taken right to jail," he said.

The Houston-based owner of Top Gun Security and Investigations has worked with retailers nationwide for 20 years, examining loss prevention measures. For retailers big and small, criminal activity -- external as well as internal -- costs retailers big money.

"It's billions of dollars that are actually stolen,” Moore said. "The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention says more than 10 million people have been caught stealing in the last five years."

However, Moore admitted to having reservations in one area.

"I think when it starts becoming a money-making process in prosecuting the criminals, then it's starting to get a little bit into a gray area there," he said.

"Shoplifters are just another revenue stream for the retailers,” criminal attorney Matt Horak said.

The issue at hand is one he is familiar with.

"I deal with this probably once a week," Horak said.

He said retailers beef up their bottom line through "civil demand letters” mailed by some retailers themselves or via their attorneys.

Here is how it works: In-house loss prevention officers stop a shoplifter in the act. They inform the shoplifter they will not be prosecuted if they sign a letter taking responsibility and agreeing to reimburse the store anywhere from $200 to $1,000.

Keep in mind, NASP says the majority of shoplifting crimes involve merchandise under $200. This translates to retailers not only recovering the loss on the spot, but making hundreds of dollars extra in the process.

Horak said every letter is crafted in a unique way.

"Every retailer has different forms of this document," he said. "Most of the ones I've seen do not have any language about not prosecuting the person through the criminal justice system."

Miami-based criminal defense attorney Annabelle Nahra is raising concerns about the civil demand letters.

She showed Channel 2 Investigates a few, including one in English and Spanish from a grocery store chain.

"I'm not sitting here and telling you that people should go out there and steal things from companies, and I understand that companies have the right to protect their products and the people (who) are working there. But the way in which the system is being set up, the individual is set to be prosecuted twice," Nahra said. 

Some retailers still have gone forward with prosecution even though they have a signed letter from the shoplifter agreeing to restitution.

In a lawsuit last summer a California judge called a program Walmart relied on as, “extortion.”

A company representative informs Channel 2 Investigates the retailer “officially hit pause on the program” several months later in December. 

Macy's ended its program in 2016 after it was characterized as a "coercive collection practice” in a class-action lawsuit in New York.

Every state allows it. Texas does so through the Theft Liability Act.

Horak said he tells his clients not to pay. He said retailers are unlikely to come after you.

"It's a numbers game," he said. "They send out as many letters as they can just to see how many people are going to pay this money they don't have to pay." 

When asked if it is an innovative revenue stream or shady business, Horak said, "This is not an innovative revenue stream. This is definitely shady business."

A role reversal of sorts?

"It's definitely flipping the script here and trying to bill that person for money they are not entitled to," Horak said.