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If I am approached by a store detective and accused of stealing something can they search my bag without my consent? Or putting this another way, can I insist that any search be done by the police and refuse to cooperate until the police arrive?

I'm specifically interested in the situation in the UK, though the situation in other countries may be of interest to other site members. I should emphasise this is a purely hypothetical question and I'm asking out of curiosity rather than any need for legal advice.

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I can't find any specific laws or cases in the United Kingdom.

In Australia, bag searches must be consensual - shopkeepers and even security staff have no power to search your person or belongings. It is for this reason that you will often be asked by security staff to open your bag, and move belongings around inside that may obstruct their view.

If they attempt to force you to surrender your bags for search by physical force or by intimidation, you may be entitled to bring a claim for the tort of assault and/or battery. You need only prove that these occurred, without actual loss or damage.

In any case, they do not have the power to arrest or detain you unless they believe you have committed a crime, and in those circumstances, only reasonable force may be used.

You are under no obligation to remain in the store. If they detain you against your will and you are later found not to have shoplifted, you may be entitled to bring a claim for the tort of false imprisonment, which is, again, actionable per se (you need not actually show damages) and serves to vindicate a person's right to liberty.

  • Doesn't common-law "Shopkeeper's privilege" exception apply? – feetwet Sep 27 '15 at 14:41
  • That's a US doctrine, as far as I know, no such exception applies in the UK. – jimsug Sep 27 '15 at 14:44
  • @feetwet shopkeeper's privilege seems to allow detention, but not search. For that, the police would have to be called. – phoog Sep 27 '15 at 16:40
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    UK rules are the same, except that a citizen can arrest (without being sued/prosecuted for wrongful arrest) if they reasonably believe you are in the process of committing a crime. (They can also legally arrest if you have, in fact, finished committing a crime, but if you haven't they are at risk.) The courts have decided that "walking out of the shop" is part of committing the crime so a store detective can arrest. – Martin Bonner May 28 at 10:14
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+25

In most stores it's quasi-contractual in that you enter the store as a "licensee" subject to the terms of that license. Many stores, especially in urban areas or stores that are very busy, will have a notice or some sort of sign that says something to the effect of "we reserve the right to have you check (stow) your bag while shopping, or to search your bag before you leave".

When a customer enters a store, they do so under a licence. So long as the store has some sort of notice, retailers are able to search any bags, parcels (i.e.. bags from other stores), or other items (people often shoplift and store small but valuable stolen merchandise in a cup with a lid and straw); they can typically (with signage) search anything that may potentially be used to shoplift, however, retailers must display a notice that your entry subjects you to this right. It's supposed to be prominent, but that is subjective. It's typically somewhere near entry and the check-out.

When a bag search is conducted no items are supposed to be opened; the retailer is supposed to only look at the contents. Customers do retain the right to refuse to have their bag searched, but since a customer enters a store under licence, the retailer also has the right to ask a person to leave, revoking the licence and often banning them forever.

If a store has a reasonable belief that a patron has stolen something, or some other property offence has been committed, they can legally detain or search a customer. This is a slippery slope for retailers though, because if they are wrong and a customer has not stolen anything, the retailer may face an action of false imprisonment, assault and a host of other torts. Most retailers will have their security ask the person to wait for the police to come, and if they refuse, they will call the police while following the person who has left with their unsorted bag.

  • Is this in the UK, or is this a general principle that applies to all countries? I don't think I have ever seen a notice of the type you describe in a UK store, and I'm pretty certain such a notice would have no legal force in the UK. – John Rennie Sep 29 '15 at 14:28
  • The principal itself (the licensee issue) is born of common law, so yes. But, the UK may have specific laws (statutes) that afford shop owners that right without any notice requirements (which again are common law, rather than statutory) and those I would not be aware of. I could probably find out though. – gracey209 Sep 29 '15 at 14:30
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I've been a security officer for 10 years. The answer is quite simple: No they can't and it's quite a universal thing.

Private security are civilians, they have the same legal powers plus the powers of the land or property owner. Private security can only search you or your assets with your permission. Unless you leave your assets unattended for period of time, then security can search your belongings without your permission. This is to identify who the assets belong to, or to check for signs of criminal activity or terrorism.

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    Welcome to Law.SE, and thanks for this reply. Could you just edit it to say which jurisdiction you worked in? – Paul Johnson May 28 at 10:05
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In the United States, generally, unless you have previously agreed to permit searches of your person upon leaving a store (a good example of this are the Sam's Club or Costco contracts), you may not be searched, unless you consent to such search or the store has probable cause to search you.

Additionally the store does not have automatic immunity from civil suit if it turned out you did not steal a thing, unlike the police who are generally immune for their actions if they had reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

Local and state laws may vary.

Additionally, you probably have not actually committed a crime until you left the store with unpurchased merchandise. You could walk into a store, walk around very suspiciously, stuff a bunch of things into your pockets, then pay for them. If they caught you on camera stuffing things in your pockets but didn't follow you through the entire store, it is entirely possible you paid for the items. Also you may decide to leave the items in the store in a way the shop employees would not notice. As long as you didn't leave the store with unpaid merchandise, you did not break the law. Then if they stop you or try to arrest you (ignore them, since you're under no obligation to follow their orders; if they forcibly stop you and start searching you, the store and the employees have exposed themselves to a significant amount of civil liability), hire a lawyer and you can probably get a really nice settlement from the shop.

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    The last paragraph may not be true. Stealing is defined as intending to keep the property forever. Whether you actually keep it successfully is irrelevant. Therefore, by putting unpurchased items into pockets, one may argue the subject has done more than mere preparation to commit a crime. – kevin Jan 9 '17 at 15:48
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    @kevin you would need to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. It is reasonable somebody just put something in their pocket out of convenience and intended to pay for it later. – Viktor Jan 9 '17 at 16:39
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A security officer in the UK can arrest you under Art 24(a) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act if they suspect you of theft (actually states any person may arrest without warrant).

So if you behave in a fashion that leads the aforementioned person to suspect that you have stolen something, that person can arrest you. As refusal to allow a search and boisterous behaviour are techniques often used by shoplifters to try and get out of being detained, security officers often do arrest. Having been formally arrested, police officers are obliged to take you to a designated location for a medical examination.

So yes you can refuse, but depending on the security officer in question, it may not be in your best interests. That same behaviour can tempt the store in question to deny you further entry.

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