Can a Store Owner Lawfully Detain You?

Even though store owners and their employees have the right to protect merchandise from suspected shoplifters, there are limits to what actions they can take. Some store owners choose to detain shoplifters, and although many states allow this, there are limits to the practice. Failing to adhere to the state laws could result in charges of false imprisonment, and in some cases, a civil lawsuit. If you have been detained by a store owner on suspicion of shoplifting, here is what you need to know.  

When Can a Store Owner Detain You?

An accusation of shoplifting does not automatically give a store owner the authority to detain someone. How far the store owners and employees can go depends on several factors, including the state's laws and the circumstances surrounding the theft.  

In order to detain you, the store personnel must have probable cause to believe that you were shoplifting. For instance, if a store employee witnessed you taking items and placing them in a purse or bag, that would be considered probable cause. Probable cause can be complex though. Whereas a store employee witnessing a theft would be probable cause, a customer witnessing it might not be.  

If you are in doubt whether or not probable cause applied to your situation, check your state's laws to determine which situations fit the standard.  

How Long Can the Store Owner Detain You?

Even in states where detention of suspected shoplifters is allowed, an exact time for how long the store owner can detain someone is usually not stated. In those states, a "reasonable" amount of time is allowed. What constitutes reasonable determines whether or not the store owner or employees went too far and whether you have the right to civil damages.  

A reasonable amount of time could be long enough for the store to issue a "no-trespassing" ticket to you. It could also be long enough for the store to search for any evidence that could be used against you, such as discarded packaging.  

If the amount of time that the store personnel detains you exceeds what is reasonable based on the details of your particular situation, you can file a civil lawsuit for false imprisonment. False imprisonment simply means that your freedom of movement was restricted by store personnel against your will and without legal justification.  

For instance, if the store personnel detained you for hours after you were issued a "no-trespassing" ticket to "teach you a lesson," this could be considered false imprisonment. If you can prove the detention exceeded a reasonable time, you could receive compensation. 

To get an assessment of your particular case, consult with a personal-injury attorney such as Josh D. Tucker, P.C.