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I popped in a supermarket today, and while walking around choosing what to buy for a snack an interesting question appeared in my mind.

Imagine you are doing some shopping in a supermarket. It's not a prime time, so there are not many people around you shopping. You enter the household chemicals aisle and this is where you find a product that in no way belongs in this aisle. Let's say, it is a pack of chips lying on the floor, small enough to fit in your pocket. It can be any other product that happened to be in the wrong aisle though.

Question 1: Would it be considered a theft if you picked up the product that shouldn't be there and take possession of it?

Now, what if it was a kind of product that you know for sure that the supermarket you're in doesn't retail?

Question 2: Can I get a hold of the abovementioned product without being considered a thief?

Question 3: Would I be a thief if it was a kind of product that the supermarket retails, but that wasn't there if it were not for an incident (e.g. somebody had dropped a box of matches before I appeared and I picked it up)?

Question 4: How do I prove I'm not guilty if I get caught "red-handed"?

Thanks in advance, and my apologies if my English was ungrammatical.

  • The details are surely going to be different depending on the jurisdiction. – phoog Mar 21 '17 at 22:09
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The precise details (and citations) will vary with jurisdiction, so this answer deals only with principles.

If you pick up and "take possession of" property belonging to somebody else, you are a thief. [Note that 'taking possession' rather than picking up to restore to the owner/correct place is what makes the difference, which is why in real life nobody who cannot prove your intention will take action; but your question explicitly concedes the point.] If the property does not belong to the supermarket, you are not stealing from them, but from the currently unidentified owner: this makes no legal difference.

You might conceivably have a defence if you can prove that the owner has abandoned the property, whatever the definition of "abandoned" is in your jurisdiction (note that it is up to you to show this, and possibly that you knew it before you picked up the property). If it belongs to the supermarket, this cannot be true; if a box of matches has fallen out of someone's pocket, it might possibly be (whatever the laws are, it is very unlikely that they have ever been applied in such a trivial case, so there may be some uncertainty).

in any case, the shop is undoubtedly allowed to throw you out, ban you from returning to their premises, and inform other shops and the police that they believe you to be a petty thief, based on their experience.

  • I would add that you probably wouldn't be considered to have "taken possession of" the property until you left the premises of the supermarket or consumed the good. As long as the item is still in the pre-checkout register part of the store you haven't taken any action inconsistent with it belonging to the store. You could be considering buying it or assisting the store in putting it back where it belongs. Also, I would disagree that lack of knowledge of the true owner make no legal difference. Abandonment is almost presumed in the fact pattern presented when the owner is not the supermarket. – ohwilleke Mar 22 '17 at 0:58
  • Related law.stackexchange.com/questions/14273/… – Dale M Mar 22 '17 at 1:11
  • Thank you for the answer. To sum up, I definitely cannot get away with property that belongs to the supermarket but happened to be in the wrong area without committing a crime; if the property belonged to anybody/any place but the supermarket I am in, I am still a thief towards them, but I can go out without paying for it. Hopefully, I understood it right. – user151486 Mar 22 '17 at 10:39
  • @ohwilleke Right. Actual usage of the property I took possession of is the key aspect in defining it as a crime. – user151486 Mar 22 '17 at 10:42
  • @ohwilleke: As far as I know, in the USA you are guilty when the intent to steal is proven; for example by hiding things in your pockets. In other countries, it's not in your possession and not theft until you leave the store. And abandonment (instead of lost property) would be really rare. In some countries, any property on private ground is in the legal posession of the owner of that ground and not lost, so taking it is theft. – gnasher729 Mar 23 '17 at 0:07

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