I am just wondering what are the legal limits to the extent to which private security can use physical force?

For example, if I am in a private establishment (let's say, a shopping mall); a security guard asks to me to leave and I refuse. Is he legally allowed to beat me up and break my arm?

Another example, if I am on a facility owned by a private company and a security guard asks me to hand over my cell phone and I refuse - can he beat me up and take it?

More extreme examples might be if I was damaging property or trying to harm someone on the private premises. I would assume private security would have some powers to use force to defend people/property from damage?

In terms of jurisdictions, it is US/UK I am primarily interested in.

  • At least in the US, police officers can't "beat you up" because you refuse to do something. They are authorized to use as much force (but no more) as required to place you under arrest. You can refuse to show (or unlock) your phone, there has been a lot of controversy about that in the US lately as it relates to Constitutional rights.
    – Ron Beyer
    Aug 20, 2018 at 15:52
  • @RonBeyer thanks for your comment; however, please note that my question is about private security, not police officers. I imagine the powers granted to each are probably different.
    – Time4Tea
    Aug 20, 2018 at 15:59
  • 2
    I meant to say that "At least in the US even police officers can't..." Basically I'm saying that I don't know of anywhere in the (civilized) world that somebody can beat you up just for refusing to do something unless you are being combative or fleeing, and even then they can't "break your arm", only use what force is necessary to restrain you.
    – Ron Beyer
    Aug 20, 2018 at 16:05
  • @RonBeyer Ah, ok. What about if I was damaging property or trying to harm someone on the private premises, though? I would assume private security would have some powers to defend people/property? I will add those examples to my question.
    – Time4Tea
    Aug 20, 2018 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


Private security have no special powers in the UK. They are just ordinary citizens like you are. Touching you is likely to assault at the very least.

Asking you to hand over your phone, or open your shopping bags for inspection or anything like that is the same as if any other random person did it, i.e. they have no authority to force you to do so.

All they can do is call the police, but even then they are subject to the same rules about wasting police time and so forth, and can't detain you until they arrive.

  • "Touching you is likely to assault at the very least": not in every circumstance, surely; for example, if you're beating someone else up, can't they touch you in order to protect the other person? Furthermore, Wikipedia says that citizen's arrest is permissible in England and Wales; if that is true then they would in fact be able to detain you until police arrive in certain circumstances.
    – phoog
    Aug 20, 2018 at 16:26
  • @phoog yes there are cases where touching is justified, but the example in the question was someone refusing to leave. Good point about citizen's arrest though. I've always wondered how it would work in practice, e.g. if shop security tried to detain you could you citizens arrest them for unlawfully detaining you? In any case I'd call the police immediately myself.
    – user
    Aug 21, 2018 at 8:11
  • With regard to citizen's arrest, I rather suspect that the shop security are already invoking citizen's arrest when they detain someone (since, as you note, they have no powers other than those available to an ordinary citizen). For the citizen's arrest to be lawful, they have to call the police immediately, so whether the arrested person also does so is probably of little importance. Whether the police would charge the security agent or the shopper would depend on the evidence available.
    – phoog
    Aug 21, 2018 at 17:01
  • Someone refusing to leave after being asked to leave by an agent of the company that owns or rents the building is likely to be a trespasser. Trespass is a civil wrong in English Law, and people are allowed to use the self help remedy of 'reasonable force' to remove trespassers from their property.
    – bdsl
    Apr 29, 2020 at 23:22
  • I would expect this to the be same in most parts of the world - it seems to be one of the most fundamental parts of what it means to own land.
    – bdsl
    Apr 29, 2020 at 23:22

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