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Can store employees legally detain people they suspect of theft?

On Behalf of | Nov 15, 2021 | Criminal Defense

As the holiday shopping season gets underway, you can count on store managers and employees as well as their security personnel being extra vigilant about watching for potential shoplifters. Unfortunately, if you’re a young person, a Black person or a member of any group who is often stereotyped as being “criminal” or “dangerous,” you know all too well that some people are watched more closely than others. Likewise, store personnel are more likely to accuse some people of shoplifting – sometimes with no evidence – than others.

Do store personnel, whether they work in a security capacity or not, have the right to detain a person if they suspect them of shoplifting – or even catch them attempting to take an item out of the store without paying?

What is “shopkeeper’s privilege?”

Texas, like many states, recognizes something known as “shopkeeper’s privilege.” Specifically, Texas law states that someone “who reasonably believes that another has stolen or is attempting to steal property is privileged to detain that person in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable time to investigate ownership of the property.

The law doesn’t go into detail about what “reasonable” means in regard to belief, time or manner, just what kind of search can be performed and what rights the accused has to leave the premises or call someone to help them. Typically, people are detained until a law enforcement officer arrives.

Wrongful accusations and detainment are too common

Even then, however, people are too often wrongly accused. Nearly three years ago, a Texas case garnered media attention when two men were detained at a mall in Frisco after the employee of a store claimed they had stolen $600 in hoodies. Video captured the employee searching through the handcuffed men’s bags as police stood by. The men were released when they showed receipts for the merchandise.

If you’re in this situation, experts generally recommend a “comply now, complain later” strategy. This can help keep a situation from potentially turning violent and keep you from doing something that could be a violation of the law – like resisting arrest.

If you’ve been arrested for shoplifting, it’s crucial that you understand laws relevant to your situation. It’s also important that you let your attorney know the circumstances of your detainment and arrest, as these could affect the case against you.

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