What Can Store Owners Do If They Suspect You of Retail Theft?
You’re walking around a store to kill some time while you wait for friends. When you get a text that they’re ready, you head for the exit. Before you can get there though, a big security guard steps into your path and says you have to come with him.
When you ask why and shake your head, he grabs you and pulls you into a back office where a woman who appears to be a manager sits. They tell you that they know you stole something and that they’re going to hold you there until you admit to it and give the item back.
Can they do this though? Is it even legal?
The answer is… complicated.
Breaking Down Legal Detention in Illinois Shoplifting Cases
There are all kinds of theft techniques that store owners and security guards watch for, and if they believe they have seen you engaged in any of them, they have the right to detain you under Illinois law. However, they can’t just keep you there forever, and there are other associated rules as well.
Here’s what the state criminal statute actually says:
“Any merchant who has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has committed retail theft may detain such person, on or off the premises of a retail mercantile establishment, in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable length of time…”
Merchants are also allowed to detain someone – regardless of whether they’ve actually stolen anything – if they notice that the individual possesses either a theft detection device remover or a theft detection shielding device.
It goes on to say that merchants are only allowed to do this for certain reasons. Specifically, they can hold you so they can:
- Ask for and/or verify your ID
- Ask if you have unpurchased merchandise with you
- Investigate any merchandise you do have to determine who the owner is
- Contact a peace officer so they can notify them of your detention and surrender you into their custody
If the accused individual is a juvenile, merchants are only given the right to hold them off of store premises if they are in “immediate pursuit” – in other words, if they chase the person from the store and catch them. Additionally, when minors are concerned, store owners can contact parents, guardians, or “other private person interested in the welfare of that minor,” as well as a peace officer, as mentioned above.
Notice anything strange about the way the law is written? Let’s answer that by asking another question: what’s “reasonable”?
You can see above where it says that merchants may detain people “in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable length of time,” but really that’s just the beginning. There’s also language saying that their questioning about whether you stole anything also needs to be “reasonable,” and that any investigation into the ownership of the item must be as well.
Again, though, what is “reasonable”?
This is a very important question, because it speaks to how someone is apprehended, how they are treated during their detention, and how long that detention lasts. For better or worse, those things are all left open to interpretation.
Because of this, if you are detained by a security guard or store owner, it is vital that you keep track of exactly what happens. How were you initially detained? What was said? Were you threatened or physically injured? How long were you held?
All of this information may be beneficial to your case if you end up being charged.
How about the reverse? What are your rights in this situation?
Your Rights If a Store Employee Detains You
So you know that merchants can hold you if they believe that you’ve stolen something from them, but what kinds of things are you allowed to do to protect yourself?
When you break it down, there are really just three big ones, and one of them has already been mentioned: keep track of what happens and what they do and say to you. If they violate your rights at any point during the process, that is something that may help to get your charges reduced – or even completely dropped or dismissed.
What are the other rights you have?
The right to remain silent. Their goal is to get you to confess. That means getting you talking. So don’t. Other than information that they can get from your ID, you don’t say have to say anything, and it’s in your best interest not to. Even if you think you’re helping your case, it could end up hurting you in the end. So stay quiet and force them to piece things together on their own.
The right to request an attorney. Obviously merchants and security guards aren’t cops, but you can still ask for a lawyer – and you should! After all, it’s easy to feel intimidated and confused if you’re hustled back to a tiny closed room and interrogated. A lawyer can make sure that your rights are protected, and even just asking for one may cause the people who are detaining you to treat you better.
Additionally, while merchants are permitted to videotape their premises – including dressing rooms – typically there should be a warning posted for customers.
Retail theft charges may seem like no big deal, but they can be incredibly serious. Depending on the value of the item or items you allegedly stole, you could end up facing felony charges that come with the possibility of years in prison and thousands in fines. Fight back by contacting a knowledgeable Chicago shoplifting attorney.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and domestic violence to retail theft-related crimes, murder, and drug crimes.