Have you ever been in a store and had someone follow you around watching your every move? That usually is because shoplifting is big business and, during a recession, it typically grows. Many retailers use deterrents such as surveillance cameras and security tags to deter shoplifters. Because of the high number of store thieves in the past few years, store managers and owners are more likely to accuse first and ask questions later. Accusing, holding, and detaining shoplifters can put store managers and owners at a risk for civil liability if the accusations are untrue.

A merchant does have the right to hold someone in a reasonable manner, for a reasonable time, if they have reasonable grounds to believe the person has committed a retail theft. It is the merchant’s responsibility to prove that their actions were reasonable. A store owner walks a thin line between protecting their merchandise and opening themselves to liability. In order to detain a shoplifting suspect a store owner must have sufficient cause for their suspicion. Mere suspicion that a person is shoplifting is not enough.

The detention of a suspected shoplifter must be done in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable time. The employee or owner has the right to request and verify identification, ask the person if they have un-purchased merchandise in their possession and to make sure the merchandise is owned by the store. They can contact the police and give the shoplifter over to them. If a minor is involved, the merchant has the right to immediately attempt to contact their parents.

If the detention becomes unreasonable at any time (the accused is physically prevented from leaving, had property taken or was detained for an unreasonable period of time), a store owner can be liable for false imprisonment. The store may also be liable for assault and battery if the person was injured while being apprehended or detained. Store owners can become liable for defamation of character if the unlawful arrest or detention is publicized.

Store owners and employees should have a clear cause for suspecting a person of shoplifting because customers also have rights. Merchants should weigh the risks, invest in security equipment and properly train their employees. Preventing the loss of a few hundred dollars of merchandise may not be worth the risk of thousands of dollars in damages and legal fees if a customer sues them.