A standard question by a defendant arrested for petty theft, shoplifting, in California is what to do about the letter from a civil attorney representing the store or alleged victim demanding money be paid.
It is standard to get this type of letter in a shoplifting scenario. Generally, from a pure criminal defense perspective, you could ignore the letter and it probably will not affect a criminal case. On the other hand, the criminal case may have restitution issues (“restoring” to the alleged victim what was taken). The prosecution is only concerned with any restitution issues as far as paying monies to a victim. If the letter addresses monies that, if paid by you, work towards a “civil compromise” or at least resolving some amount of restitution, then that could help in negotiating for a more favorable resolution to your case.
But if not, then the letter remains a civil, non-criminal, matter for small claims court. The store, if a large chain, is not going to go to small claims court. It is just not worth their time, and they cannot send an attorney to do the work in small claims court. Thus, the attorney that wrote you the letter is not going to ever appear in small claims court.
Keep in mind the bigger issue here. A conviction of petty theft is a crime of moral turpitude, meaning it is bad in itself, and looks bad on your record, especially if convicted.
Fortunately, the possibilities in resolving such a case has many variables, including whether or not you have a prior criminal record, the facts of the case, who’s prosecuting the case, the judge at the hearing, and other items.
Ultimately, it is the criminal charge you face that matters more than the civil letter.