How to know your rights if caught shoplifting

Updated February 21, 2017

Shoplifting costs merchants approximately $13 billion a year. Shoplifting can be prosecuted in both civil and criminal courts. However, there are many cases of false arrests that violate the rights of the person accused of the crime. Here are facts regarding rights in shoplifting arrests.

A merchant must provide probable cause for shoplifting, which must satisfy certain criteria, before you can be detained.

A merchant must see you select the store merchandise. If an employee sees you after you have an item in your hand, it establishes doubt as to where the item came from and may not hold up in court.

Someone must see you hide or carry away store merchandise or see you emerge from a fitting room with fewer items than when you went in.

A witness must maintain visual surveillance of you throughout your stay in the store to provide probable cause for detaining you.

You must have left the store's premises before you can be approached for not paying for items.

If you are caught with merchandise, in many states a merchant has the right to detain and question you and have you arrested.

In other states merchants do not have the right to detain you but can have you arrested, making a false arrest claims against them more common.

Other customers or employees who do not satisfy the requirements of probable cause for your arrest may be considered unreliable witnesses.

The use of excessive force in your detainment can be a violation of your rights. An organization that deals with civil rights such as the ACLU should be notified in serious cases (see Resources below).

If you are not allowed to leave a room, a chair or other confined space, or if security guards or store employees are acting out of their jurisdiction of power, you may be entitled to claims of false imprisonment.

Cooperate with the police if you are caught. Attempting to fight or flee will only make matters worse and may result in a more severe sentence.


A shoplifting offense can remain on your permanent record for years. Multiple offenses can result in steep fines and (depending on the severity of the theft) jail time in most states.

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