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Shoplifting Searches: When Are They Legal?

By Betty Wang, JD | Last updated on

Are shoplifting searches ever illegal?

Searches of suspected shoplifters occur all the time, most commonly as part of a store's protocol if a bag sets off the alarm for some reason. Usually, customers don't object to them if they have nothing to hide.

But business owners beware: Some types of searches can potentially be considered illegal. Here are some general guidelines:

Shopkeeper's Privilege

One legal concept that allows merchants and business owners to conduct searches and then detain suspected shoplifters for a short period of time is called the shopkeeper's privilege.

Courts generally consider a variety of factors in determining liability for a false imprisonment claim, such as:

  • Was your suspicion reasonable? In other words, did you actually see the person take an item and place it into her bag without paying? Was the person acting suspicious in general to warrant a search?
  • Was your search reasonable? The key here is whether or not your search was within the scope of the alleged act. For example, accusing someone of stealing, and then just grabbing her purse to conduct a search may lead to other claims such as assault and battery.
  • Were they detained for a reasonable amount of time? Generally, patrons are only allowed to be detained until a police officer arrives, or for the purpose of inquiring about their acts. To detain a customer in your store for hours on end falls outside this scope, and you very well could be held liable for any claims the customer will sue you for.

The big, determining factor that courts will use to assess your liability is, as you can see, whether or not your actions were reasonable. There is no concise definition for what reasonable is, so the safest bet is to act as cautiously as possible if you think that you are dealing with a possible shoplifter.

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