When you visit a large retail store, a smiling employee in a brightly-colored vest will often greet you at the door. However, sometimes these cheerful store personnel will change to gatekeepers when you leave, asking to see your receipt and marking it with a pen. But what if you walked past these folks—could they stop you? Read on to find out your legal rights.
(Learn more about laws that protect you by reading Consumer Protection Laws.)
At Most Stores, Showing a Receipt Is Voluntary
The staff at any store—including the big box establishments—can ask to see your receipt as you exit. Although you likely acquiesce and hand it over, you might wonder whether the store could do anything if you refused to show it. The answer is no—at least, not without more information.
Before taking further action, the personnel must have reasonable suspicion to believe that you’ve shoplifted. Without that suspicion, the staff cannot stop you from leaving the store. For instance, it would be inappropriate to do any of the following:
- stand in your way
- use abusive language, or
- physically detain you.
Membership stores are different, however. The chances are that when you purchased a club membership, you also signed a contract agreeing to allow the store to check your receipt before leaving. Because of the terms of your contract, the store doesn’t need to suspect that you engaged in shoplifting to detain you at the door.
The “Shopkeeper’s Privilege”
Most people know that the fourth amendment protects people from unlawful searches and seizures. However, many don’t realize that it only protects you from government agents, such as police officers—not store personnel. So if you feel that a retail establishment is stopping you unfairly, your go-to argument won’t be the fourth amendment.
Instead, you’ll turn to state law for your protection. Most states have laws that outline what a store can do when stopping and searching customers. These rules are known as “shopkeeper’s privilege” laws.
The law allows store personnel to detain a person suspected of shoplifting temporarily. It applies when there is a reason to suspect that a particular individual has shoplifted. For instance, store personnel might have the right to stop someone after witnessing suspicious activity in person or using a security camera.
The laws are carefully designed to help the store recover property, and limit store personnel to such activities. For instance, store personnel cannot randomly search individuals, or target people in particular groups. Additionally, even if store personnel are authorized security, they cannot use more force than is necessary to hold the person until police arrive.
What Is False Imprisonment?
If store personnel prevents you from leaving when you have the right to do so—including a receipt checker—you could have a legal claim for “false imprisonment.” False imprisonment occurs when you are:
- not free to go
- detained against your will, and
- held without legal justification.
For instance, suppose that store personnel asked you to show a receipt, and you refused. If the employees prevented you from leaving, you might have a false imprisonment claim. (False imprisonment is both a civil violation and a crime.)
Store personnel should know that they cannot detain you for failing to show a receipt (unless you are at a membership store). However, not all staff are trained properly. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll likely want to remain calm and ask to see a manager.
Should I Show My Receipt When Asked?
You can stand on your rights and refuse to show your receipt to the little old lady at the door, or walk by the newly-employed teenager who’s trying to follow instructions (as long as it’s not a membership store). But should you?
Even though you don’t have to comply with the store’s request, there are reasons why you might anyway. Stores do spot checks to ensure that the cashier put all of your items in your cart, and to keep costs down by deterring shoplifting. So undergoing a receipt check ultimately benefits you and might be worth a little hassle.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Does my state have a shopkeeper’s privilege law?
- How long can a store detain me?
- Can I file a lawsuit against a store if its staff held me against my will?