By: Margaret A. Lourdes, Esq.

Shoplifting costs American businesses roughly $16 billion each year. Considering these staggering losses, it is easy to understand why merchants may attempt to personally apprehend suspected shoplifters.

Most states allow merchants to take reasonable steps to stop and detain shoplifters. Arkansas law is an example of how states commonly address a merchant’s rights to self help. It reads:

“A person engaging in conduct giving rise to a presumption [of shoplifting]

may be detained in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable length of time

by a law enforcement officer, merchant, or merchant’s employee in order that

recovery of a good may be effected.”  (Ark.Code 5-36-116).

The catch is judges and juries decide how to define statutory terms like “reasonable.” Each event is individually evaluated to determine if a merchant acted appropriately under the conditions.

Merchants can face lawsuits for things such as assault, battery and false imprisonment if they act excessively to prevent shoplifting. There are some basic guidelines you can follow to help minimize your legal risks no matter where you do business.

First, be certain you have a solid basis for apprehending a suspected shoplifter. Most state laws require you have reasonable or probable cause before apprehending a suspected thief. For example, if you believe a customer mistakenly walked out of your store with an unpaid item you do not have a reasonable basis to apprehend him for shoplifting. A reasonable response would be to peacefully approach him and amicably raise the issue. However, if someone is caught on surveillance cameras concealing items under her clothes you can generally assume she is shoplifting and take proper steps to stop her.

Second, do not use excessive force while apprehending a suspected shoplifter. Avoid causing injuries and do not demonstrate an exaggerated show of force in front of your customers. Remember, they are potential witnesses if you are accused of improper conduct. Therefore, be as discrete as possible. Do not shout, use profane language, or unnecessarily draw attention to the incident.

Third, if you apprehend a minor call the child’s parents. Many state laws have special protections in place for minors and contacting parents is a frequent requirement.

Fourth, call the police immediately if you suspect shoplifting. Most state laws only allow you to detain a shoplifter for a reasonable length time. Again, the term reasonable always relates to the circumstances at hand. Getting the police to take over quickly can stop the allegation you detained someone for too long.

Fifth, educate your employees regarding how to handle shoplifters. Setting a clear policy for your workers can reduce your legal exposure. Consider asking a police officer to speak to your employees. Local police departments are generally cooperative in teaming with businesses owners to set plans to prevent community crime.

Be certain to check your state law or consult a legal expert in your community for specific questions about your rights to apprehend and detain suspected shoplifters.

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