When Can a Shoplifter Be Lawfully Detained?

Sometimes shoplifting is a relatively minor offense (for example when a teenager steals a lipstick from the mall) while under other circumstances shoplifting can constitute a serious offense (for instance when a woman slips an expensive diamond engagement ring into her purse while browsing at a fancy jewelry store).

However, it is important to be aware that those who are suspected of shoplifting can be detained regardless of the dollar amount of the merchandise that they allegedly tried to steal. But under what circumstances can a suspected shoplifter be lawfully detained? And what rights does an alleged shoplifter possess after being detained? These questions have been answered below in accordance with the law but please be aware that each shoplifting case is unique and that any case-specific questions should be directed towards a local petty theft shoplifting defense attorney.

When Can a Shoplifter Be Lawfully Detained?

In most shoplifting cases the alleged shoplifter is confronted and detained by the store’s personnel after someone witnesses the alleged offender attempting to conceal merchandise on their person or a theft alarm sounds when the individual attempted to leave. But are there limits to a store clerk or a security guard’s legal right to detain an individual whom they suspect of shoplifting? Yes, there most certainly are, the most important of which are discussed below.

A merchant may only detain a suspected shoplifter for a reasonable period of time in order to conduct a reasonable investigation into the matter, provided that the merchant has probable cause to believe that the individual attempted to unlawfully take, or successfully took, goods from the premises. Additionally, the merchant may only use a reasonable amount of non-deadly force as is necessary to stop the alleged shoplifter from escaping or to prevent the loss of property. The merchant may also use reasonable force to protect himself if necessary.

What Are the Rights of an Individual Detained for Shoplifting?

While merchants do have the right to detain any customer whom they have probable cause to believe stole or attempted to steal merchandise, a detained individual is certainly not without rights. For example, a detained suspected shoplifter has the right to remain silent. In other words, they have no legal obligation to answer any of the merchant’s questions and they are certainly under no obligation to admit any wrongdoing. Additionally, alleged shoplifters can refuse to have their person searched by the merchant, however, it is important to note that many states do allow a merchant who has lawfully detained a suspected shoplifter to conduct a limited and reasonable search of packages, shopping bags, handbags, or other property that is in the immediate possession of the detained person if the detained individual refuses to surrender the alleged shoplifted item(s).

Need Legal Advice?

If you have been accused of shoplifting, contact an experienced lawyer, to review your case and discuss your legal options.