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While shopping, I often notice items that have been placed in the wrong locations, likely due to a shopper realising they didn't want something they had picked up earlier and being too lazy to put it back in the right spot. I noticed this again yesterday, except this time it was a tub of yoghurt sitting dejectedly on a warm shelf far from the refrigerated section. This sad display got me thinking about how much damage a chaotic individual could do if they decided to relocate expensive refrigerated items to inconspicuous, room-temperature places around the supermarket, leaving them to spoil.

Would this kind of behaviour be considered illegal?

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how much damage a chaotic individual could do if they decided to relocate expensive refrigerated items to inconspicuous, room-temperature places around the supermarket, leaving them to spoil.

The state of mind of the person moving the item matters. For example, if you intend to cause a food item to perish by moving it from a fridge to a shelf, then you could commit the crime of criminal damage under Section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. You can also commit that crime by being reckless as to whether the food item would be destroyed. Recklessness means taking a course of action while disregarding risks that you ought to be aware of.

There is a defence if you have a "lawful excuse" for causing the damage. Section 5 provides that the following is a lawful excuse:

(2) (a) [a person shall be treated as having a lawful excuse] if at the time of the act or acts alleged to constitute the offence he believed that the person or persons whom he believed to be entitled to consent to the destruction of or damage to the property in question had so consented, or would have so consented to it if he or they had known of the destruction or damage and its circumstances;

(3) For the purposes of this section it is immaterial whether a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held.

It is common for example to change your mind about a purchase while paying and to leave the item with the cashier. A person might extend that to assuming that the supermarket won't mind if you do this mid-shop and leave an item on the wrong shelf. As long as you genuinely believe they would consent, then you have a defence even if it wasn't reasonable to believe that.

This defence is probably sufficient for most normal shoppers. However, in the extreme scenario you described where a person is doing this on a large scale, it will probably be difficult to convince a court or jury that you genuinely believed the supermarket would consent.

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In the UK, causing damage to someone else’s property, either intentionally or recklessly, is criminal.

The difference between leaving one yoghurt pot in the wrong place, and smashing 500 expensive wine bottles on the floor, is the amount of damage. If the amount is low, the shop owner won’t bother to call the police, and a court will either not hear of it at all, or will likely refuse to hear a trivial case with minimal damage. In case of destroying £5,000 worth of wine, the police will be called, and the case will go to court ending in a conviction, as long as there is enough evidence.

In either case, if the shop owner doesn’t like your behaviour, they can ban you from the store. If you don’t leave or return later, that would be trespass and criminal.

And the store can demand payment for the damage. Intentionally smashing one bottle of wine will likely not get you convicted, but forcing you to pay will be easier.

(In case of the wine bottles, it’s not the obvious violence that matters so much. If you quietly opened the door to the walk-in freezer and turned off the power, causing £5,000 worth of meat to become in sellable, that would be the same thing).

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