Ok, so CAN a store check my purchases on the way out?

Tonight I’m going to a large electronics store. It’s going to be my first time there- and I’ve heard that a) they check purchases against your receipt when you leave and b) it’s illegal for them to do that (illegal detainment, or some such).

Since I’m itching for some good old fashioned moral righteousness, I’d like to just say “no, thanks” when they try to search me- and keep walking. I’m not a thief- but they are seemingly accusing me of being one by checking my purchases.


  1. Can they legally stop me from leaving the store, just to check my purchases, just 'cause?

  2. What can they do to me if I don’t stop? Call the cops? I somehow doubt I’d get in trouble for not letting them search me- especially if, when the cop shows up, I’ve got a receipt for everything.

  3. What legalistic arguments can I use to deny them their searches? I don’t really want to look like more of an idiot than I am…

Any advice, oh Dopers?

According to the book “Apprehending Shoplifters Without Being Sued” a merchant has to follow three principles

  1. The merchant must have probable cause to detain a suspected shoplifter

  2. A merchant may detain a suspect only for a reasonable period of time

  3. A merchant may only use reasonable force in detaining a suspected shoplifter

So, if the guy at the door strong arms you and pushes you back in, you may have a valid complaint. I doubt that the person will do that.

IANAL, but if you put up enough of a stink, you will probably be allowed to leave the store without your purchases being examined. The store could also refuse to serve you anymore in the future.

In times now, where security concerns are very high, you may not find many sympathetic judges who will welcome your lawsuit attempt, even though I don’t think that terrorists are out to systematically shoplift DVD players.

I walk out of Fry’s almost every time – even when there’s no line waiting. They never seem to care.

By the way, the floor employees’ fabled ignorance is almost universally not a fable. There are a few people who know things, but you often have to wait in a long line for them.

IANA lawyer, but my understanding was that they have to have “probable cause” to search your bag, that they think they saw you shoplift something.


If they think they saw you steal something, and you don’t stop, they have the right to use “reasonable force” to stop you.

I suppose you could clutch the bag to your chest and say defiantly, “You can only check my bag if you think you saw me steal something.” This may protect your civil rights, but it’s not going to make you any friends at the store. And, of course, they can always say blandly, “Why, yes, as a matter of fact, we DID think we saw you steal something”, and then search your bag anyway, and then apologize profusely and insincerely afterwards.

Bear in mind that everybody’s jumpy nowadays, and that many stores hire off-duty cops as security guards, who may have a very different interpretatin of “reasonable force” than you might, and you might not enjoy the experience.

But why not let 'em check your bag? :confused: No BFD, IMO. :wink:

The question you ask the guard is:

Are you arresting me? They back off real fast.

They can be sued for false arrest. The last time I checked it was averaging about $3,000 that the security company has to pay for each false arrest.

I think you should go for moral indignation. This is a terrible way for stores to act and to stop it, we need to let them know it’s not wanted.

I would like to see a study on whether or not this actually stops any shoplifters. I doubt it.

I don’t ever let them check my bags, even if their little security buzzer goes off. Other than a little unpleasantness at the door, I have never been hassled past that. One time a guard ran out of the store after me and flashed a rent-a-cop badge, but when I let him know he was going to have to arrest me, he backed off quickly.

I am a pretty big guy, though. They wouldn’t, in general, be able to push me around too much.

Except at Costco! They are more than ready to challenge you if you try to walk throught without the receipt/merchadise check (from personal experience). They even have a nice pamphlet ready for you to explain that they are a private club and, as such, you agreed as part of your membership form you signed that gives them permission to audit your receipt. They tell you that if you don’t like it, they will cheerfully refund your membership dues and cancel your card.

IANA lawyer, so I am hoping someone who is wants to try testing the legality.

Sam’s Club.

They want to “check your receipt” on the way out.
I used to question it… now I don’t even bother with a second glance at the “checker”.

I don’t bother to stop. I blow right by the line of people waiting to have their receipt checked.

If they call after me, I keep walking.
If they chase after me, I refuse.
If they try to strong-arm me, I’ll twist 'em into a pretzel.

BTW, I’m 6’4" and a hard 300# plus.

I don’t get messed with.

At Home Depot they say it is to make sure you did not get overcharged, or nanything like that.

Yeah, Right.
I will allow someone to check if they stop me, but I will not wait in a line.

IAAL, although I have never specifically dealt with this issue so it’s just “off the cuff” thoughts.

I think it’s legal if it is part of the normal practice of the store and they are only checking what you bought, and not, for instance, your purse. In other words, if you can see walking in that they check stuff on the way out (and it’s often posted as well), that’s just an implied condition of shopping there. You don’t like the concept? Go elsewhere.

If that wasn’t a normal practice, then the false arrest genie starts to work its way out of the bottle.

Again, just my educated opinion. I’ve got some libertarian tendencies on these issues generally but I think it’s going out on a limb to protest too much if everyone is checked.

Suppose you wear a little sign that says, “Search of my personal posessions is not permitted.”? By letting you int the store, there is an implied condition that you will not be searched.

FTR, I almost always walk out w/o showing my I.D. I am not a shoplifter and I don’t want to be treated like one. Some would say, “If you have nothing to hide, then don’t worry about it.” Yeah, right. That’s what they said in Germany in the 1930s.

So. If you have your little sign, or if you state when you go in (whether anyone is listening) that you refuse to be searched, does that mean they agree to your terms?

I didn’t mean to be as curt as that last “go elsewhere” comment came across.

My feeling is that the “don’t search me” sticker won’t hurt, but it’s probably not going to help much. You have chosen, among all of the stores in town, to go to them to shop. While they advertise generally, they haven’t sought you out, at least if they knew about the sticker :slight_smile:

There’s a rule of property law called “coming to the nuisance”. Basically it says that if a stinky chemical plant opens up next to you, you might be able to make a claim against them for stinking up your yard; but if you build a house next to an existing plant site, you are out of luck. I think the same general principles are going to overlap.

I am a plaintiff’s lawyer and so I see all sorts of strange factual situations (though not precisely this, yet). The bottom line in my analysis (as well as the store, its lawyers, its insurance adjusters, etc.) is: What will a jury think? Unless you are going to get your case heard at Berkeley (no offense meant to anyone) or somewhere else where you have a strong anti-establishment jury pool, you’re probably not going to fare well if you deviate from my “rules of thumb” set forth in the prior post. In Texas, where I am, if you pull any of that funny stuff the jury’s going to toss you on your ear in 10 minutes.

I worked on Oregon, at a store I’ll just call “Bullseye.”

Bullseye’s policy was to only check receipts if A) the electronic alarm sounded, or B) if I was hpoing to frighten someone I suspected of lifting into dumping the merchandise. Some points:

I only asked to see the receipt. I never insisted, and I would not search a purse, coat, pockets, etc. This was a non-accusatory, “Excuse me, sir, may I check your receipt to be sure everything was charged properly?”

If the answer was “no”, then that’s that. “Have a nice day!” If we had the five elements*, then I wouldn’t be talking to them at all; we’d just arrest them as they left the store.

If store security stops you from leaving by stepping in front of you, placing his/her hands on you, grabbing your cart, etc. he/she has in effect placed you under arrest. For his/her job’s sake, there had better be a reason. Asking for a receipt does not qualify as arrest.

Having said all that, try to remember that these are generally underpaid folks with really crappy jobs. What’s the point in starting crap with them, when they’re only following store policy? [Note: using the prior statement to invoke Godwin’s Law will get you ignored. Believe me, they’ve heard it.] If you have a problem with it, talk to the manager. Not about the poor guard, but about the decisions made by corporate.

This process deters shoplifting. I guarantee it. in the long run, it keeps prices down, and service better. Cite? I’ll run them down, but I can speak from personal experience in the meantime.


  • Five elements? Yup. You have to:
  • see them approach the merchandise
  • see them select the merchandise
  • see them conceal the merchandise (if applicable)
  • maintain 100% visual contact
  • see them exit the store without paying

Uhh, I’ll have to double check the books for the nitty gritty, but as far as I know, at those Costco/Sam’s Club type of membership stores, you must stop, as per your contract. If, in the contract, it states you must stop to have your items checked, and you agreed to it, then it is binding.

But, really, who is going to enforce this? Most of the time, they’ll just let you go as to not make a scene, and simply because it’s good business. If they want to be anal about it, they can terminate your membership. And if they really want to go overboard, they can sue you for breach of contract, but, come on, who are we kidding?

Never, under any circumstances whatsoever allow yourself to be taken out of the public view, guilty or not. If they are intent on taking you away to a back room for Goddess-knows-what, you need to resist in any way possible, demanding that they call the real police to handle the situation. If things have got this bad, don’t try to escape, don’t try to fight or run away, just simply refuse to go with them non-violently, and demand loudly and vehemently that they call the police and let them handle it. This serves two purposes:

  1. You are not taken and held prisoner by the rent-a-cops in a windowless room somewhere, where a 19-year old tries to interrogate you about your supposed “crimes”. I’ve seen far, far too many hidden camera tapes of these interrogations, and some are downright scary.

  2. When you are searched by the police and found to be innocent, you now have a nice paper trail of what you were put through, and that you were found to be innocent.

You could try to say nicely the line:
“I’m sorry. The contents of my bag are private property.”
Assuming, of course, that you really paid for the stuff!

All the stores that stop people to check them, have signs (big signs usually) that state they can do so. Thats all they need to have the right. (Note-they cannot search you, just check the stuff you bought)

You may be able to bully or rush out, but they can stop you and that would be considered probable cause for shoplifting. The problem (from a store standpoint) is that they don’t put qualified LP people on the doors. I would say most stores have hired security people who arern’t really trained at this or their own employees who are too incompetent to work anywhere else in the store. THeir instructions are probably not to force the issue as they may botch it.

In short though, they can legally check your purchase (if they have a sign stating so) and they can detain you (passively at least)if you refuse. Or they can call the police and have you arrested if you leave. And if they follow procedure (primarily, if they don’t say anything too bad and don’t do anything that could be considered assault) they would have a solid case if you sued. But since there are 6 or 8 "if"s in this sentance, most stores don’t bother too much.

Another point - when you leave costco, they highlight your receipt. If you leave Costco/Cam’s Club WITHOUT having your receipt checked, and you try to return/exchange an item, they can REFUSE to do so, as your receipt wasn’t checked, and you are in violation of your agreement (that’s how they enforce it, Vandal). So all you ‘try to stop me, I live in a free society’ types better hope you don’t have a faulty VCR when you leave the store.

To Summarize the thread…

what I’ve read here is that at a normal store they can’t do squat, and at a private store like Costco’s/Sam Club they can do whatever is in the membership agreement. Correct?

Better double check what **JohnW77707 ** (the only declared lawyer to comment) said!