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Is It Legal for a Security Guard to Detain You?

By Holly South | Last updated on

We've all seen those mall jail cells in TV shows and in movies like "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." But what exactly are the legal rights of security guards in malls and stores to detain you in those mall jails?

Legal Authority of Security Guards

Generally speaking, private security guards do not have the same authority as police officers. A security company is not a law enforcement agency. Other than assisting in medical emergencies and breaches of the peace, they basically have the same rights to act on crime as the average private citizen. Keep in mind, though, that the policies for security guards differ between companies, jurisdictions, and states. Basically, the most a security guard can do is call 911 in the case of an emergency or possible criminal offense. But you should check up on your state and local laws to be sure what a security guard can do.

If a security guard were to observe a misdemeanor, that is considered a breach of the peace, the most they could do is conduct a citizen's arrest and wait for a police officer to come and take the individual into custody. A security guard can ask you to wait for a police officer to arrive, but if they try to hold you against your will and they fail to perform a legal citizen's arrest, you can sue them for false imprisonment.

Security Guards Are Not the Police

Security guards are not law enforcement officers, and they must not do anything to impersonate a police officer. While a security guard may believe that acting like a police officer will help them at the moment, it could cause them some severe legal trouble. The company they work for may also suffer consequences.

If a security guard uses excessive force on you without acting in self-defense, they could face criminal assault charges, or you may be able to sue them for using unreasonable force.

Armed Security Guards

Some facilities hire armed security guards, who are trained to carry a firearm and may use lethal force if the situation requires. While they still do not have the same authority as police, many armed security guards go through more rigorous training than unarmed security guards and are typically required to have a degree in either criminal justice or police science. Armed security personnel must follow the same regulations as unarmed security guards until they have a specialized police officer certification.

If you are detained by a security guard, keep in mind what they can and can't do. It is legal for an unarmed security guard to detain you, but they can't do so by using force or other methods used by police, such as handcuffing you or placing you in a holding cell. If it is an armed security guard with specialized police officer certification, they can detain you and use reasonable force.

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