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Aggressive. Experienced.

Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney
Former Cook County Felony Prosecutor

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When Retail Theft Accusations Are Rooted in Racial Profiling

The majority of white shoppers probably don’t give too much thought to walking into a store and passing a security officer. However, many African-Americans and other people of color have a different experience. In some cases, black shoppers have even been accused of or charged with retail theft for items that they legally purchased.


Detroit Civil Rights Attorney Accused of Shoplifting


One of the most recent high-profile incidences of this alleged racial profiling in retail stores comes from Detroit, where civil rights attorney Portia Robertson was stopped by security and accused of stealing from Talbots. Ms. Robertson, who has worked in the Justice Department at the White House and is currently the head of Detroit’s Civil Rights and Ethics division, had gone to the clothing store to return several items that she’d bought online and also try on new things. Ms. Robertson says she informed a salesperson when she arrived that she had items in her bag to return, along with a receipt. However, after she left the fitting room, a police officer asked to look through her bag.


Ms. Robertson was able to show the police officer her receipt, and she was not charged with retail theft, but she was understandably upset about being stopped. While the store manager apologized and claimed that the officers had simply been doing a sweep during a busy time, Ms. Robertson claims there were only four other shoppers, and the police left without searching anyone else.


Macy’s, Barneys, and the NYPD Accused of Profiling Shoppers


, When Retail Theft Accusations Are Rooted in Racial ProfilingAnother story that made headlines last year came from New York, where the NYPD, Macy’s, and Barneys were all accused of racially profiling shoppers. Dozens of shoppers complained, and two filed lawsuits. Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old African-American man who filed a lawsuit against Barneys and the NYPD, says that he left the store after purchasing a $350 belt with his Chase debit card and was stopped a couple blocks away by police officers. According to him, they asked how he had been able to pay for the belt and held him at a police station for two hours under the suspicion that the debit card was a fake. Christian’s case was not an isolated incident: 21-year-old Kayla Phillips filed a separate lawsuit, saying that she was “stopped, frisked, searched, and detained” by police in Barneys after she used her tax refund to purchase an expensive purse.


While the cases described above are the ones that have gotten the most attention recently, the issue of racial profiling in stores is not new. In 2005, investigators discovered that Macy’s was disproportionately stopping black and Hispanic shoppers on suspicion of retail theft. Meanwhile, research has shown that 86% of black shoppers feel they are treated differently based on their race when they enter a retail store.


Know Your Rights if Stopped by Store Security


, When Retail Theft Accusations Are Rooted in Racial ProfilingIt’s an unfortunate reality that racial profiling still takes place in retail stores. Studies have shown that black and Hispanic shoppers are no more likely than white shoppers to steal, and experts have cautioned that behavioral cues are more indicative of retail theft than race, yet many store managers and security officers still seem to have an ingrained belief that people of color are more likely to commit retail theft.


If you find yourself stopped by store security or a police officer and accused of retail theft, it’s important that you know your rights. Here are a few things you can do:


Show your receipt. Always hold onto your receipt after making a purchase, and show it to any security or police officer who stops you.


Carry identification. If you’re paying with a credit card, it’s especially important that you have a driver’s license or other form of identification with you.


Be cooperative. It’s understandable to get upset if you’re stopped by a police officer when you haven’t done anything wrong, but don’t yell, argue, or cause a scene—otherwise, you risk being charged with disorderly conduct.


Ask why you were stopped. While you should be cooperative, you also have every right to ask why the store security or police officer stopped you.


File a complaint with the city police department. If you believe that you were stopped without reasonable cause, get the names of the officers who stopped you and file a complaint with the city’s police department. The best way to stop future incidences of racial profiling is to call attention to the problem.


If you are arrested because a store or police officer accuses you of retail theft, or if you are arrested for disorderly conduct or a similar misdemeanor for arguing about the accusation, contact a skilled defense attorney as soon as possible. Don’t let a crime for which you are wrongfully charged affect the rest of your life.


About the Author:

Andrew M. Weisberg  is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area for the Law Offices of Andrew Weisberg. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and violent crimes to theft-related crimes and traffic violations.

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