Stop That Paying Customer! The Legality of Compulsory Receipt-Checking

Written by: Steve Glista
Researched by: Matthew A. Schroettnig
Edited by: Lauren E. Trent

When Michael Righi heard someone running up behind him, he thought he knew what would come next. He expected a difficult conversation, maybe even some shouting or threats. He certainly didn’t expect to get handcuffed — but that’s exactly what happened after Righi walked out of a Circuit City in Cleveland, Ohio withoutHandcuffed Consumer showing his receipt to the security guard at the exit. He’s not the only shopper in recent months who has experienced frustration or met with open hostility after refusing to show a receipt on the way out of a store. Customers like Righi claim that the Fourth Amendment protects them from unreasonable searches, that it’s wrong for stores to treat all customers as suspected criminals, and that stores have no right to demand a receipt or anything else from every customer. Since so many stores are checking receipts, it can’t be illegal…can it?

The American system of law values few things more highly than the freedom for people to come and go as they please. The idea that retailers may deny that freedom to paying customers over a simple matter such as refusing to show a receipt offends privacy advocates in a fundamental way. One of the beautiful things about the law is that it seldom identifies an offense without creating a corresponding legal remedy. When a person is wrongly held prisoner, the victim can seek redress against his captor in a civil suit for false imprisonment.

Why check receipts?

Before considering whether detained customers like Michael Righi have grounds to sue, it helps to understand what motivates retailers to risk such liability. Today, nearly every retail outlet from Wal*Mart to Neiman Marcus offers at least one pocket-sized digital toy worth several hundred dollars. The 32 GB iPod Touch for instance, which Apple has priced at $499, is smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Without loss-prevention measures, a store like Costco could not afford to display an open rack of iPods without exposing itself to daily risk of substantial theft.

One approach retailers take to combat shoplifting is to keep small but valuable products in a locked display case. This method has the disadvantage that it may reduce sales, as customers are forced to obtain assistance before they can purchase the product. Another common approach is to wrap small and valuable items in large, difficult-to-open packaging. Unfortunately, packages designed to prevent theft can also frustrate legitimate buyers. The tough plastic used has proven dangerous enough that inventors have created specialized tools to help people open their new possessions without injuring themselves.

Receipt-checking is an increasingly popular loss-prevention method which retailers use to stymie would-be thieves. The brief stop discourages shoplifting by forcing each person to face down a guard before exiting the store. Unlike the locked display case, it doesn’t interfere with the customer experience until after the purchase is complete. The drawback to aggressive receipt-checking programs is that unless they train their employees carefully, retailers can quickly find themselves on the receiving end of a civil complaint.

Just Keep Walking

The customer who objects to showing a receipt wonders, “I haven’t done anything wrong, so why is this store treating me (and everyone else who shops here) like a suspected thief?” Many shoppers have a vague sense that mandatory receipt checks intrude upon some kind of Constitutional right. While a general right to privacy may emerge from the “penumbras, formed by emanations” of the Bill of Rights, one Amendment is frequently cited as protecting citizens from compulsory searches. Many people believe that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution always requires agents of the U.S. Federal and State governments to obtain a warrant before making an arrest or searching personal property. However, the Supreme Court has found leeway for law enforcement officers to act without a warrant in some common-sense situations. For example, an officer can arrest and search a suspect without a warrant when there is “probable cause” for the officer to believe that the suspect is in the process of, or has just finished, committing a crime.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1967 Terry v. Ohio decision, police officers must merely identify “specific and articulable facts” which motivate them to apprehend a suspect. After an officer has made such a “Terry stop,” he may conduct a cursory search of the suspect, generally including a pat-down for weapons and an examination of any personal property not concealed in the suspect’s clothing. Searches incidental to Terry stops are justified on the grounds that police officers have a compelling interest in their own personal safety, and the failure to discover a weapon could present an unacceptable risk.

If the receipt-checker were a government officer the Fourth Amendment would generally allow customers to refuse to show a receipt, because presumably at least some customers visit Circuit City but don’t try to steal anything. If the officer detained every customer and conducted a search, a court would bar the use of any evidence obtained, unless the officer had probable cause to believe either that he was personally in danger or that a particular customer had taken a five-finger discount. In reality, the responsibility for checking receipts usually belongs to a store employee rather than a police officer. Consequently, the Fourth Amendment does not restrain those private citizens as it would agents of the government.

Some members-only discount stores require their customers to give consent to be searched by an employee as a condition of membership. For example, the Costco membership agreement contains an unconditional consent to search on page 29. Customers who sign such an agreement (as all Costco customers must) would seem to have no grounds to complain if they are later required to submit to a receipt-check.

You’re not going anywhere!

As all first-year torts scholars know, “false imprisonment” is a legal term that describes the act of unlawfully confining a person against their will. Unfortunately for retailers with a nationwide presence, the actual details of the law vary by state. In most states a plaintiff must prove the following elements in order to make out his case. The offender first must have the intent to confine the victim, and second, must take action to actually confine them. Third, the offender must act without a legal justification for doing so. Fourth, the victim must be aware of the confinement while it’s happening, or be harmed by it. Finally, there must be no reasonable means for the victim to escape (or at least no means that the victim is aware of). If the offender physically blocks the exit with his body and refuses to move, that may be enough of a confinement to satisfy a jury.

Even if an accused shoplifter can prove all the elements of a false imprisonment claim, the retailer might have an out: most American jurisdictions recognize a limited “shopkeeper’s privilege” exception to the false imprisonment tort. Many states have enacted the common-law privilege as positive law (for example, Oregon’s law is ORS 131.655). In either form, the shopkeeper’s privilege allows a retailer to detain suspected shoplifters and inspect their personal property for stolen items. Such a detention will not be punished as false imprisonment as long as it is limited to a reasonable (short) time, takes place in the store, if the force used to detain the suspect is reasonable, and if the retailer had the reasonable belief (often defined in this context as equivalent to probable cause) that the suspect was attempting to steal or had already stolen something from the store. In practice, this last condition generally means retailers must actually see someone take an item and exit the store without paying for it before they attempt to confront the suspected thief.

So where does this leave Mr. Righi and other potential plaintiffs? In Mr. Righi’s case, he actually made it into his car before the security guard accosted him. Once he was in the car, the guard told him he couldn’t leave the premises, which is evidence of the guard’s intent to restrain him. The guard prevented him from leaving the parking lot, which satisfies the second element. Mr. Righi was also aware that the Circuit City employees were physically preventing him from leaving (element three). Before the police handcuffed him, he might have been able to escape from the Circuit City parking lot without injury to himself or to the security guard, but if he believed that he was effectively restrained, that may be enough to prove the fourth element (no reasonable means of escape). Assuming Mr. Righi gave a true account of all of the facts, it would seem his situation meets all the necessary elements for a false imprisonment claim against Circuit City.

What of the shopkeeper’s privilege? Most of the circumstances satisfy the conditions necessary for Circuit City to claim the detention was privileged. The defense would turn on whether the guard had probable cause to detain and search Mr. Righi for stolen goods. However, Circuit City does not have the power to forcibly search all of its customers, and the only specific and articulable fact that brought Mr. Righi to the guard’s attention was that when offered the opportunity to submit to a search, Mr. Righi politely declined. It is circular reasoning to suggest that the refusal to submit to a voluntary search is itself justification for subjecting a customer to one that is compulsory.

Should you show? Or should you sue?

Even though typical customers who refuse receipt checks might have the law on their side, it seems odd that a consumer electronics store was the place where Michael Righi chose to draw a line in the sand. Picking a fight with a retail security guard over a $20 receipt seems quixotic at best. Righi’s resistance stands out because, for most customers, the injury suffered from such a minor intrusion just isn’t significant enough to incur the cost of failing to comply with the guard’s request. But how should a customer who refuses to show their receipt expect to be treated by the law?

Litigious customers facing off against the police or Costco might not have much luck. Police need probable cause to conduct a search, and Costco members have voluntarily agreed to submit to searches. The question of law is more interesting when a retailer like Circuit City attempts to implement a receipt-check policy without the benefit of a member agreement. In states where the shopkeeper’s privilege exists, stores like Circuit City may only claim the privilege to search customers when the store agent has a reasonable belief that a customer has engaged in unlawful activity. It seems implausible that store agents could honestly claim they need to check every receipt on the grounds that they have a reasonable belief that every one of their customers is a thief.

This entry was posted in Featured Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

137 Responses to Stop That Paying Customer! The Legality of Compulsory Receipt-Checking

  1. Blake says:

    hello there and thank you for your information – I have certainly
    picked up something new from right here. I did however expertise several technical points using this web site, since I experienced to reload
    the web site many times previous to I could get it to load correctly.
    I had been wondering if your web host is OK?

    Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will often affect your placement in google and can damage your high
    quality score if advertising and marketing with Adwords.
    Anyway I am adding this RSS to my e-mail and can
    look out for a lot more of your respective fascinating content.
    Make sure you update this again very soon.

  2. Ashley says:

    I’d like to share my recent trip to costco. I am 17 and live with my family (still in high school). My mother sent me to go get some groceries after work, and armed with her membership card I went to go get the week’s necessity’s as well as ingredients for that night’s dinner. So I made my way around the store, and as anyone who shops at Costco would know this is no quick trip. About 45 minutes later, a full cart, and a hungry 8 year old brother we head into line. The cashier lady asks for my card. I give it to her. “This isn’t your card” she accuses when she see’s my mother’s mug shot, excuse me, picture and I hurriedly explain it is my mother’s and I live with her and that I am 17, I’m not a friend trying to get by without paying for a membership, not even a family member not living with her. She immediately shuts down and says “Oh well than I am sorry but for legal reasons we can’t sell to you because you are under 18.” and she has the man packing up the grocery’s (the same one’s I painstakingly found over the course of 45 minutes going through crowded aisle after aisle making sure to get every item on my mom’s list.) start to wheel away my card. So I say “fine, can I get them just this once, we need this food to finish making tonight’s dinner and I will bring her with me next time” but I already know that she is going to refuse so there is nothing I can do but duck my head from being so humiliated and rush out of there with my brother. Of course I am forced to wait in the long line to have my “items” checked and after short of being frisked I explain I didn’t make any purchases and therefore do not have a receipt I gather up my pride and leave.

    Of course after this I still need food for dinner so I stop by the local grocery store and repeat my earlier trip, beyond pissed that I am able to go to work every day, drive, and yet I am “under the legal age to purchase grocery’s.” Sorry for the rant, but the way Costco treats it’s PAYING customer’s is beyond frustrating, and I had to voice this. Still they get business because of their (sometimes) cheap prices and ability to buy in bulk…

  3. Hi, I do believe your web site might be having internet browser compatibility problems.
    When I take a look at your site in Safari, it looks fine however when opening in Internet Explorer, it
    has some overlapping issues. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Besides that, great website!

  4. For the benefit of developing a related product comparisons, we have looked
    at routers in this range that share similar attributes
    like IEEE 802.11n wi fi standards, 2.4-ghz band and dual antennas.
    If you are buying a new router, nothing less than an n router is highly recommended.
    If you own a wireless g router, it will be wise to update to some
    radio n layer 3 switch. The newest routers also increase speed with wi fi
    Quality of Support applications (QoS) standard,
    which makes effective use of Ethernet connections by prioritizing multimedia visitors according to the application’s sensitivity to delay.
    Many wireless-n routers also apply multiple-input
    and several-output (MIMO) radio antennae to increase speeds.

  5. This is my first time pay a quick visit at here and i am in fact impressed
    to read all at one place.

  6. excellent submit, very informative. I ponder why
    the other specialists of this sector don’t notice this.
    You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you’ve a huge readers’ base
    already!

  7. cindy says:

    I went to wallyworld today and had the girl stop me like I was a criminal. I was pissed. I am not a criminal and do not treat me this way. I have friends that say, why not let them look? Because they want our guns too. You let them be hitlers and they will be. Next you WILL be giving up your other rights. Which many of us have.

  8. Good day! I know this is kinda off topic but I
    was wondering if you knew where I could find a captcha
    plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as
    yours and I’m having trouble finding one? Thanks a lot!

  9. football says:

    In the end, you will have assigned 136 confidence points (16+15+14+.
    The advent from the internet has dramatically changed the way in which bets are placed on football or soccer.
    Fan evaluations of the seat ranges will give you a great idea if the tickets you are bearing in mind
    are worth what you will splurge.

  10. Admiring the hard work you put into your site and in depth information you offer.
    It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t
    the same old rehashed material. Fantastic read! I’ve bookmarked your
    site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  11. Google says:

    Observers maintain the item displays a new coherent approach, one thing thus low in your culture, that it’s not necessarily realised by simply all.

    The website speed test at Secret Search Engine Labs will analyze how
    fast a page on your site is loading and give you tips on how to improve it.
    Reputation Defense Online an around the world Cyber
    Investigation along with Litigation Assistance Agency for
    Net Defamation, often receives inquiries from attorneys along with law enforcement agencies
    on the way to subpoena Google‘s Legal Division.

  12. Makayla says:

    Right here is the right web site for anyone who wishes too find out about this topic.
    You realize so much itts almost hard to argue with
    you (not that I really will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh spin on a topic that has been written abiut
    for decades. Excellent stuff, just wonderful!

  13. Hey this is somewhat of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or
    if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding know-how so I wanted
    to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help
    would be enormously appreciated!

    Feel free to surf to my site … bing.com; http://Bing.com/,

  14. drayer says:

    Heya we are the first time in this article. I ran across that board and i also still find it definitely practical & the item solved the problem outside lots supplemental health care staffing. I hope to give something just as before in addition to guide people as you helped me.

  15. Vοus publiez constamment dess postes fascinants

    Here is my blog post – Lesbiennes Sexy

  16. amy says:

    Ashley needs to grow up and shut up. The membership agreement referenced in the article she’s presumably read, since she’s commenting on it, specifically states that a membership can only be used by the member named on the card, and that no one under eighteen is allowed in the warehouse without an adult. It’s fine to dislike these rules, but you don’t get to whine about them when you agreed to follow them by signing on the dotted line. That’s why the receipt check whiners are so annoying. Sure, I’ll be complaining right along with you when it comes to anyplace open to the general public, because that’s insulting and not anything I’ve agreed to be subjected to. When it comes to things like membership clubs, warehouse clubs or anything else where you’ve signed an agreement or contract in order to be there, you agreed to it in writing and they have every right to enforce their policies.

  17. lawyers says:

    It’s difficult to find experienced people on this subject, however, you
    seem like you know what you’re talkingg about!

    Thanks

    my blog post lawyers

  18. JonesCir says:

    Actually I am also think its more positive news for the real estate market. I think it make a biggest change in real estate field. Thank you for this posting. Keep it up.
    new york state security license

  19. I have been exploring for a little bit for any high-quality
    articles or weblog posts in this kind of house
    . Exploring in Yahoo I eventually stumbled upon this site.
    Studying this information So i am happy to exhibit that I’ve an incredibly good uncanny feeling I discovered exactly
    what I needed. I such a lot for sure will make sure to don?t omit
    this website and give it a glance regularly.

  20. Good way of explaining, and pleasant article to get facts regarding my presentation topic, which i am going to present in university.

  21. I do not leave many responses, however i did some searching
    and wound up here Stop That Paying Customer!
    The Legality of Compulsory Receipt Checking |
    The Legality. And I actually do have some questions for you
    if it’s allright. Could it be only me or does it give the impression like
    some of the remarks appear like they are written by brain dead individuals?

    :-P And, if you are posting at other online social sites, I’d
    like to follow everything fresh you have to post.
    Could you list of all of all your community sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or
    twitter feed?

  22. Asking questions are genuinely pleasant thing if you are not understanding anything
    completely, except this post provides nice understanding even.

  23. If some one wants expert view concerning blogging after that i
    recommend him/her to pay a quick visit this webpage, Keep up the nice job.

  24. Yahoo says:

    Asking questions are actually nice thing if you are
    not understanding something completely, except this
    paragraph offers pleasant understanding yet.

  25. Because the admin of this website is working, no hesitation very soon it will be renowned, due to its feature contents.

  26. Tiara says:

    In fact when someone doesn’t be aware of afterward its up to other users that they will assist, so here it occurs.

  27. Della says:

    Thanks for your post right here. One thing I would really like to say
    is the fact most professional fields consider the Bachelor Degree as the
    entry level standard for an online college diploma.
    When Associate Qualifications are a great way to start out, completing your Bachelors presents you with
    many opportunities to various employment opportunities, there are numerous internet Bachelor Diploma
    Programs available coming from institutions like The University of Phoenix, Intercontinental University
    Online and Kaplan. Another thing is that many brick and mortar
    institutions present Online versions of their diplomas but usually for a considerably higher cost than the companies that specialize in online
    college degree programs.

  28. No matter if some one searches for his essential thing, so he/she wishes to be available that in detail, therefore that thing is
    maintained over here.

  29. For latest news you have to pay a quick visit world wide web and on web I found this website
    as a best web site for hottest updates.

  30. DJ says:

    What about the situation I found myself in today? I am not a Costco member but, in the state of California at least, Costco is required to let non-members in to purchase alcohol, prescription meds, and possibly other items. On my way out after purchasing a bottle of booze I declined to stop in the 6-deep line waiting for receipt check and simply walked out. I was verbally accosted by the receipt checker and after responding “it’s ok, I paid for this” chose to brush her off and continue on to my car while she shouted after me and shouted for security (who never appeared). So in the case where I am not a member, and therefore have not signed any agreements, would the receipt check be considered “voluntary” or “compulsory”?

    On a personal note, I think being expected to wait 5-10 minutes to prove to the business, that I just gave money to, that I am not a thief is unreasonable. The contention that they are checking receipts to make sure customers were not overcharged is laughable, no one has 100′s, if not 1000′s, of products and prices memorized.

  31. Hello There. I found your weblog the use of msn. This is an extremely well written article.

    I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to learn more
    of your helpful information. Thank you for the post.
    I’ll certainly comeback.

  32. Leilani says:

    Hi excellent website! Does running a blog like this require a
    great deal of work? I’ve very little knowledge of computer programming however I was hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyhow, should
    you have any suggestions or techniques for new blog owners please
    share. I understand this is off subject nevertheless I just wanted to ask.
    Kudos!

  33. It’s actually a cool and helpful piece of info.
    I’m happy that you just shared this useful information with us.

    Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  34. Thanks for finally writing about > Stop That Paying Customer!
    The Legality of Compulsory Receipt Checking
    | The Legality < Loved it!

  35. health says:

    Valuable info. Lucky me I found your website unintentionally, and I’m surprised why this accident did
    not took place in advance! I bookmarked it.

  36. Kathi says:

    Awesome content. You should use social sites to increase traffic and make
    your site go viral. There are tools which automate this time
    consuming process.Visitors can flood your blog in no time,
    just type in google for:
    Rixisosa’s Social Automation

  37. Jim says:

    I havee read so many posts concerning the blogger lovers except this post is actually a fastidious paragraph, keeep itt up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>