To help prevent theft, retail stores often employ security guards to investigate potential shoplifting cases.  These security guards may be in uniform or in plain clothes. 

A security guard has the general authority to detain someone if there is probable cause that shoplifting has occurred.  However, this authority has some limitations.  Any time a security guard stops a shopper, it must be for a reasonable time, and must be done in a reasonable manner.  

Probable Cause

"Probable cause" means that a security guard has reason to suspect that shoplifting has occurred.  This normally means that he or she observes an individual approach merchandise, select the merchandise, conceal or carry away the merchandise, and leave the store.  If there is probable cause, the guard may detain the suspected individual.

Reasonable Manner

Detention of any shopper must be done in a reasonable manner.  What is reasonable depends on the circumstances, but usually includes:  

  • Physical restraint such as handcuffing if it appears to be necessary under the circumstances.  
  • "pat down" of the suspect to determine whether he or she is carrying a weapon or otherwise poses a threat to safety.  
  • Requesting identification from the suspected shoplifter.   

A security guard can never use excessive force.  Excessive force can include, but is not limited to, appliation of pain, choking, or improper handcuff use.  Foul language, discrimanatory slurs, and verbal threats can also be considered excessive force. 

Reasonable Time

A suspected shoplifter may only be detained for a reasonable time.  This usually means enough time for the security guard to conduct a reasonable investigation of what has occurred and for the police to arrive.  If police are contacted promptly, but take a long time to arrive at the location, the time of detention will still be reasonable.  However, if the store security guard delays in contacting police without any legitimate purpose, this will usually be considered unreasonable.

Does the Miranda Rule Apply to Questioning by Store Security Guards?

No.  The Miranda rule requires that police officers inform a suspect in their custody of certain constitutional rights before questioning that suspect.  As a consequence, self incriminating statements a suspect makes to police without being informed of their Miranda rights are not admissible in court.  However, the Miranda rule applies only to law enforcement officials, and not to private security guards.  Therefore, any self incriminating statement made voluntarily to a store security guard can be admitted in court agaist the person who says them.

What Can I Do If a Store Security Guard Detains me Unreasonably?

Unreasonable detention by a store security guard may create valid claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, excessive use of force, or assault.  You may have the right to sue the store for damages you have incurred as a result of the detention.

I Was Improperly Detained by a Store Security Guard – Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been detained by a store security guard and believe the detention was unreasonable, you may want to seek the advice of an experienced criminal lawyer who can explain what kinds of legal claims may be available to compensate you for the unfair treatment you have received.