Shoplifting Probable Cause

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What is Probable Cause in a Shoplifting Case?

Most states have laws that allow shopkeepers and merchants to detain a customer who is suspected of shoplifting.  This is often known as the “Merchant’s Privilege”, which basically allows the shopkeeper to make a citizen’s arrest and detain the customer until the police arrive.  However, as in any arrest, the shopkeeper needs to have “probable cause” that the customer or patron has engaged in shoplifting. 

Probable cause means that the shopkeeper is reasonably certain that the person has shoplifted items from their store.  The shopkeeper’s arrest must be based on actual facts, and not on mere assumptions, opinions, or “jumping to conclusions”.  Failing to establish probable cause before making an arrest can lead to false imprisonment or false arrest charges for the shopkeeper.

How is Probable Cause Established for Shoplifting?

Shopkeepers can go through some basic steps to establish probable cause for shoplifting.  While shoplifting laws can vary by state, following these six steps makes it easier for the merchant to establish probable cause for shoplifting:

What are the Legal Penalties for False Imprisonment or False Arrest?

If the shopkeeper makes an arrest or detainment without establishing probable cause, they could face charges for false imprisonment or false arrest.  These are very serious violations that can result in both criminal and civil consequences.  For example, the shopkeeper may have to pay criminal fines for violating the law, and they may have to reimburse the customer for any losses caused by the false imprisonment. 

It’s important to note that a merchant’s arrest for shoplifting should be accomplished with as little force as is necessary, or preferably, with no use of force at all.  If force is used unreasonably, false imprisonment charges can go from a misdemeanor to a felony charge. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance With Probable Cause in a Shoplifting Case?

Merchants and shopkeepers have many legal rights when it comes to protecting their stores and merchandise.  However, many shopkeepers may not be clear when it comes to legal concepts like probable cause.  If you are a merchant and need assistance on such issues, you should contact a qualified attorney immediately.  Your lawyer will be able to answer your legal questions, and can defend you in court if a lawsuit is filed against you or your business.

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Last Modified: 06-25-2012 03:03 PM PDT

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