SAN ANTONIO – A 72-year old woman learned the hard way that even accidental shoplifting can lead to criminal charges and threats of a civil lawsuit.
Mary Ruth Monckton admits she's experiencing the onset of dementia and says that may have led her to forget to pay for four embroidered letters costing $1.29 each at a Hobby Lobby store.
"I do have a little bit of dementia starting," Monckton said. "That doesn't mean I steal things."
She was at the store's Leon Valley location with her daughter and said she placed the letters on top of her pure because they kept falling out of a shopping cart.
She said at some point, the letters fell into her purse.
When the women went to check out, Monckton said she forgot to pay for them, alarm bells went off and a manager ran over.
"I tried to explain it to him and he didn't want to hear it," Monckton said. "I don't want to hear it. He took me by the shoulder and he says, 'I'm calling the police.'"
In Municipal Court in Leon Valley, she pled no contest to misdemeanor theft, paid a $260 fee and was put on probation for three months.
"For something like that to happen to me, it made me feel dirty," Monckton said. But the case did not end there.
Not long afterward, Hobby Lobby's attorneys sent letters asking for civil damages.
The letters suggested that if the money was not paid, a lawsuit could be filed.
But the letters were addressed to Mary Monckton's daughter, Therese.
The first asked for $400 and the second asked for $750.
"For what," Therese Monckton asked. "I didn't do anything except take my mother shopping."
In an emailed statement, a Hobby Lobby spokesman wrote, "We do not comment on pending legal issues nor our internal policies to combat the serious problem we and all other retailers have with shoplifting."
San Antonio Attorney Michael Latimer said this kind of letter is not unusual.
"This is where criminal law and civil law overlap," Latimer said. "This letter refers to a Texas Theft Liability Act, which is an actual statute that authorizes people who are victims of theft to actually sue civilly for damages."
Latimer said while the law allows victims of theft to recover damages, the letters are mostly a threat.
"I have seen these letters written to some of my clients and generally what I tell them is a safe bet, they will never sue," Latimer said. "The cost of suing would greatly outweigh the recovery that they could get."
The Moncktons did not pay but the damage had already been done.
"(The store manager) says, 'You're just a thief,'" Mary Monckton said. "I hear that in my ears every night."
Latimer sais several major retailers have contracted with the same Florida law firm to send out the letters in shoplifting cases, and that it is likely a shotgun approach where they hope some people will be scared enough to pay.