What right does a store have to refuse you service?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I was shopping in a small, local grocery store. They came up to me, accused me of shoplifting, detained me but did not charge me, and ultimately asked me to leave. Then they told me I could not come back to the store. Can they do this if they have no evidence that I was actually shoplifting?”

Shoplifting is a serious problem in the U.S. In fact, according to a survey from the National Trade Federation (NRF) at the University of Florida, estimates of the cost for inventory loss due to shoplifting, employee and supplier fraud, and administrative errors costs United States retailers close to $44 billion dollars in 2014.

Now you specifically asked about shoplifting. Most stores have procedures for addressing the issue of shoplifting. In fact, generally, before an employee will stop and try to detain you for shoplifting, they must establish probable cause, which means they might have seen you hide something in your purse or walk out of the store without paying for merchandise.

The store should also follow very specific procedures to detain you, but generally, they are allowed to use some method to keep you from leaving the premises until the police arrive on the scene. If a security officer finds merchandise on your person then it’s likely you will be arrested and potentially charged with a crime.

If you are arrested, it’s important to note your rights. Specifically, the right to remain silent, the right not to provide information that might incriminate you, and the right to talk to your lawyer.

What if I was not arrested for shoplifting?

You did not mention whether you were falsely accused of shoplifting or whether a security guard simply saw you stealing, requested that you return the stolen goods, and then gave you a warning without pressing criminal charges and told you not to return to the store.

Unfortunately, once you have been told not to come back to a store you are on notice that the property owner has withdrawn their permission for you to be on the premises. If you decide to return without the property owner’s permission, you could be arrested and charged with criminal trespass.

Let’s take this a step further. Let’s assume the store has the whole incident on camera and simply decided to let you off with a warning. If you do decide to go back to the store, they might decide that they want to prosecute you for the theft too, something they may well be in their right to do for up to one year or longer depending on the value of the goods you stole.

According to Alan James Brinkmeier, a dispute lawyer in Chicago, Illinois, “A local store owner can ban someone from their store with or without good reason. A private store owner always may reserve the right to refuse service.” Exceptions may exist, however, if the ban is based on discriminatory reasons including the color of your skin, a disability, your ethnicity or your sexual orientation.

When can I not be banned from someone’s property?

As mentioned above, customers can be banned from private property if they are violating reasonable rules or story policy. For example, a store may refuse to offer you service if you are not wearing a shirt or shoes. Private property owners should, however, make sure their policy and procedures are not discriminatory or unfairly targeting customers in a protected class.

For example, stores have been sued by African American shoppers who claimed they were being stopped and searched more frequently at certain high end stores than their Caucasian counterparts.

With this in mind, it’s important to consider whether the store’s policies and procedures were actually based on your actions or whether they the store has instituted policies and procedures that routinely discriminate against a certain protected class or they decided to ban you for a reason that could be considered discriminatory under federal law.

Bottom line:

Laws related to shoplifting are pretty clear cut. If you were shoplifting and simply received a warning, it’s best not to push your luck. Steer clear of the property.

Issues of discrimination are much more complicated. For this reason a private store owner who decides to ban shoppers for a variety of reasons but must be very careful. While Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation, stating, ―[a]ll persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin” laws can differ on what is an is not considered a “public accommodation.”

Talk to a lawyer if you have additional questions about your rights after a property ban

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