How to Avoid Legal Problems When Apprehending a Shoplifter

Written by ehow legal editor
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Shoplifting is the theft of goods, generally totaling less than $500, from a retail store. Shoplifters can cost businesses and stores a lot of money in lost revenue. When you catch a shoplifter, you may want to prosecute him or her. Problems occur when merchants don't know or don't follow the guidelines for approaching, detaining and prosecuting a shoplifting suspect.

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Things you need

  • Additional staff member or security staff member
  • Eyewitness account
  • Attorney (optional)

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    Avoid Legal Problems by Establishing Probable Cause

  1. 1

    Watch the suspected shoplifter approach the merchandise in your store.

  2. 2

    Be sure to witness the shoplifter select your merchandise from a shelf or rack.

  3. 3

    See the person try to hide the item or walk away with it. Establish that the person is intentionally trying not to pay for the item.

  4. 4

    Maintain visual contact with the suspect throughout his or her time in the store. You could be prosecuted for false arrest if you detain a person who paid for or put down the item when you were not watching.

  5. 5

    Watch the shoplifter to make sure he or she does not pay for the item. Check with cashiers, if possible, if you think the shoplifter paid for some but not all of the items.

  6. 6

    Wait until the suspect leaves the store to approach him or her. Once the individual is outside the store, he or she has actually committed the crime of leaving the premises without paying for the item.

    Know Your Rights to Avoid Legal Problems When Detaining a Shoplifter

  1. 1

    Approach the suspect accompanied by at least one other person and clearly identify yourself as a store employee or security provider.

  2. 2

    Know your rights with respect to physical contact. Security guards sometimes have the right to use force to detain a suspect. In some states, however, such force can render them liable for harm or injury.

  3. 3

    Avoid using excessive force, keeping a suspect handcuffed or bound or making the accused individual stay in a confined area. This will limit the likelihood the suspect will file a lawsuit against you for false arrest or false imprisonment.

  4. 4

    Know that when prosecuting a shoplifter, other customers and store employees who did not satisfy the requirements to establish probable cause make unreliable witnesses in court.

  5. 5

    Avoid legal problems of your own by knowing your rights as a merchant. The Small Business Administration is a good place to learn more about the rights of business owners in your state (see Resources below).

Tips and warnings

  • You may want to hire a criminal law attorney to represent your interests if you pursue a case and press charges against a shoplifter.
  • Know that the cost of prosecuting a shoplifter can be higher than the cost of the stolen merchandise because of legal fees.

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