How do you handle yourself if you're falsely accused of shoplifting? Most people have no idea what their legal rights are in such a situation, and the combination of stress and embarrassment can make it hard to think things through rationally. This is what you should know.

Anybody Can Be Falsely Accused Because Everyone Is Suspect

Don't think that you aren't likely to be accused of shoplifting just because you don't "look like" a shoplifter.

Research has shown that shoplifters are both male and female, young and old, and just as likely to steal from an upscale department store as they are from a struggling thrift shop. There are around 27 million shoplifters out there, and the stores know it. That makes you just as much a suspect as anybody else.

Security Guards Do Have The Right To Detain You - If It's Reasonable

Security guards generally do have the right to detain you if there's probable cause that you've shoplifted. Many times the "probable cause" is little more than a plain-clothes security officer's observations (or suspicions), but aggressive security guards have been known to lie about non-existent witnesses or video evidence.

Just because you are innocent, however, doesn't mean that you can ignore the guard and leave the store.

  • Comply with the guard's request to remain in the store, until the issue is resolved. Otherwise, you can end up in handcuffs.

Store security guards cannot, however, detain you for an unreasonably long time without calling the police, prevent you from going to the bathroom, stop you from making a phone call, or refuse you a simple request like a drink of water. They can only detain you long enough to make an investigation (while checking security video, for example), or while waiting for the police to arrive.

If any of those things happen, you could sue the store for false imprisonment.

Security Guards Do Not Have The Right To Use Excessive Force Or Search You

Security guards have very limited rights when it comes to the use of force. While every circumstance is different, guards generally cannot tackle you, shove you into a wall, verbally threaten you, curse at you, pin your arms, or do anything else that could injure you or cause you pain.

While they can put you in handcuffs if you attempt to leave or start threatening people, putting you in handcuffs for no reason (except to scare or humiliate you) could be considered excessive force. If they put you in handcuffs while you were upset and seemed like you could become violent, they cannot leave you in them once you calm down, or put them on so tightly that they injure your wrists.

If any of that happens, you could have a valid claim against the security guard for assault, battery, or the excessive use of force.

Security Guards Do Not Have The Right To Search Your Possessions Or Body For Merchandise

Store guards can ask you to empty your pockets, open your backpack, or lift your shirt to show what you might be hiding, but they can't force you. 

Whether you choose to comply with the guard's request is up to you. However, there's nothing lost by calmly stating that you'll be glad to open your bags and empty your pockets once the police get there. That way, you have the police there to witness what actually came out of your pockets, and you don't have to fear any "planted" merchandise.

Calmly and Firmly Assert Your Innocence

Sometimes, security guards will try to use the fear of arrest to intimidate you into confessing, even though you're innocent. You might be told that you can sign the confession, pay some form of restitution for the allegedly stolen merchandise, and go home. 

Never agree to that. You can end up arrested anyhow! 

Instead, the key to handling the situation is to remain calm. Politely but firmly refuse to say anything further until the police come. Hopefully the police will realize that there's been a mistake and the whole situation will be quickly resolved.

If the worst happens and you're arrested, stop talking and contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. Depending on the circumstances, you may end up being the one to make a criminal complaint, especially if the situation got out of hand. (For more information on an attorney, contact Cross, LaCross, & Murphy PLLC)