Legal Authority of Security Guards

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 What Authority Does a Store Security Guard Have?

A store security guard is typically defined as a private worker that is employed by a retail store. In most instances, a store security guard is hired to investigate and prevent against possible incidents of shoplifting or theft. Depending on a store’s policy, this individual may either be given a security guard uniform to wear or they may work undercover in plain street clothes.

Unlike law enforcement officers, however, the laws for security guards are defined by private retail stores as well as standards of reasonableness. For example, a store security guard must be reasonable in conducting an investigation and holding a suspected thief in custody.

The scope of a store security guard’s authority is also much different than that provided to a police officer. In general, a store security guard can only detain a suspected thief if they have probable cause that a theft crime, such as shoplifting, was committed. 

In addition, store security guards may physically remove people or ask them to leave the premises, but only from the private property (i.e., the retail store) for which they are employed to protect and prevent the occurrence of theft crimes. If a store security guard goes as far as to physically remove a suspect from a retail store, they must do so with the amount of force that corresponds to the situation at hand. Otherwise, they may be held liable for damages.

To learn more about your rights after being wrongfully detained by a store security guard, you should contact a local criminal attorney for further legal advice. Alternatively, if you are a store security guard who is being sued for unlawfully detaining a suspected shoplifter, you should hire a lawyer to represent you in court. 

Probable Cause

In situations that involve a store security guard, “probable cause” is generally described as when a store security has reason to suspect that a crime of theft has occurred. A common scenario in which a store security guard may have probable cause to believe that a theft crime has occurred is when they observe a suspect do the following:

  • Approach and examine certain merchandise within the store;
  • Select or pick-up the merchandise in question;
  • Attempt to conceal or carry off the merchandise; and 
  • Flee or leave the store with the merchandise without paying for it.

In such a scenario, a store security guard would be considered to have probable cause to reasonably detain the suspected thief. 

Reasonable Manner

When a store security guard decides to detain a suspected thief, they must do so in a manner that is considered to be reasonable. Although the definition of “reasonable manner” will usually depend on the surrounding circumstances, it typically involves:

  • Requesting that the suspected shoplifter provide some form of valid identification, such as a state ID or a driver’s license;
  • Asking to perform a brief search of a suspect to see if they are carrying a weapon of some kind or anything else that would pose a threat to the safety of other shoppers in the area or the security guard themselves (note that private security guards cannot search without a suspect’s consent or without reasonable suspicion that they are carrying or concealing a weapon); and/or
  • Physically restraining the suspect if they are not cooperating or for any other reason that the store security guard believes is necessary given the situation at hand.

However, a store security guard may never apply excessive force when detaining or physically restraining a suspected shoplifter. Excessive force may include beating, choking, and/or using handcuffs or cable ties in a way that is considered to be unlawful or improper. 

Depending on the facts of a specific case, use of verbal threats, foul language, hate speech, or discriminatory slurs may also be considered the equivalent of applying excessive force as well.

Reasonable Time

If a security guard detains a suspected shoplifter, they may only do so for a reasonable amount of time. While there is no exact definition provided for what qualifies as a reasonable amount of time, “reasonable time” is typically described as long enough for a store security guard to conduct an investigation (e.g., questioning the suspected thief) and wait for the police to arrive at the scene.

As long as the police are promptly contacted after a store security guard detains a suspected shoplifter, the time that it takes for a police officer to arrive at the store will still be considered to be within a reasonable time frame for holding the suspect.

On the other hand, if a store security guard does not call the police immediately after detaining a suspect and cannot supply a legitimate reason for the delay, then it could potentially be considered an unreasonable amount of time to hold a suspected thief.

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

In general, the Miranda rule requires that law enforcement officers inform a suspect of their constitutional rights before arresting them or taking them into custody for the purposes of questioning them about a crime. If a law enforcement officer fails to give a suspect a Miranda warning, then anything that a suspect tells them while in custody will not be admissible in court. 

However, since the Miranda rule is associated with constitutional rights, it only applies to government or public employees, such as state police or federal law enforcement officers like FBI agents. Accordingly, the Miranda rule does not apply to questioning by store security guards because they are considered private employees. As such, anything that a suspect says while being detained by a store security guard will be admissible as evidence in court.

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

A person who is found to have been unreasonably detained by a store security guard may be able to sue that store security guard for damages. In some instances, an individual who has been unreasonably detained may also be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the store that hired the security guard as well. 

Some examples of claims that a person who has suffered such harms may be able to file include the following:

  • False imprisonment;
  • Malicious prosecution;
  • Use of excessive force;
  • Invasion of privacy;
  • False arrest; 
  • Assault; 
  • Battery claims; and/or
  • In rare instances, slander or libel (e.g., if the incident is publicized and the person loses their job over it because it appeared as if they were a shoplifter or thief).

Aside from receiving a monetary damages award, a person may also be able to recover a few other legal remedies if they win their case. For example, a person may be able to get a personalized apology from both the store security guard and the store that hired the security guard responsible for the incident. A person may also be able to have a news story about them being a suspected thief or shoplifter formally retracted.

In addition, a person may also request that the court issue an order that the store change its policies on either vetting security guards and/or detaining suspects. 

Lastly, if a person suffered injuries, such as from an incident wherein a store security guard used excessive force when detaining them, they may be able to collect compensatory damages to pay for any subsequent medical expenses associated with their injuries like hospital bills, physical therapy, or prescribed medications.

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

If you believe that you were improperly detained by a store security guard, then it may be in your best interest to hire a local criminal lawyer as soon as possible. A criminal lawyer who has experience in handling cases involving store security guards and false imprisonment issues will be able to inform you of your legal rights and defenses under the relevant laws in your jurisdiction.

Your lawyer will also be able to discuss your legal options and can determine the best way to proceed with resolving your legal issue. In addition, your lawyer will be able to help you to perform legal research that may be valuable to your case and can help you to gather evidence to build a solid defensive argument against your charges. 

Finally, if your criminal lawyer finds that your legal rights have been violated and believes that you have a strong claim to file a civil lawsuit, they may be able to assist you in recovering legal remedies, such as compensatory damages.

On the other hand, if your criminal lawyer does not take civil cases, they may be able to recommend a good civil law attorney who does handle civil cases such as your own.


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