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An often overlooked but practically important aspect of shoplifting law is the ability of shopkeepers and owners to detain people they suspect of trying to take something from the store without paying for it. This is known as shopkeeper’s privilege and occupies a unique place in the law in Maine, between a store owners’ right to prevent theft and a patron’s due process rights and the right against false imprisonment.
Unlike many other states, which have allowed courts to create and limit a shopkeeper’s right to take action against suspected shoplifters, Maine has codified its shopkeeper’s privilege into state law. Maine Revised Statute Title 17, § 3521 allows shopkeepers and their workers if they have probable cause to believe that someone is taking property from their store, to detain that person on the premises in a reasonable manner for up to half an hour.
Store owners are only allowed to take action under § 3521 if they have “probable cause” to believe that shoplifting is occurring or is about to occur. Unfortunately, what amounts to “probable cause” is notoriously difficult to pin down and largely depends on the circumstances. While a store owner’s hunch is rarely enough to support detention under Maine’s shopkeeper’s privilege law, a hunch plus some other factor may rise to probable cause.
Importantly, this means that a shoplifting suspect does not need to have already left the store before the shopkeeper’s privilege gives the store owner a right to take action. In fact, most invocations of the privilege happen while the customer is still in the store.
Another important factor in the shopkeeper’s privilege rule is that the store owner is only entitled to reasonably detain a shoplifting suspect. This prevents store owners from using force or going far beyond keeping the patron in the store until police arrive.
In fact, the whole point of the shopkeeper’s privilege in Maine is to give the store owner the opportunity to take down the suspect’s information, like name and address, and give a police officer enough time to arrive on the scene and determine if shoplifting actually happened.
When a store owner goes too far in exercising the shopkeeper’s privilege, the owner may commit false imprisonment, which can lead to a civil lawsuit.
If successful, this lawsuit can result in a verdict that gives the suspected shoplifter compensation for the experience and the harm that has been inflicted on his or her reputation from the detention, especially if it was in front of other people.
The criminal defense lawyers at MCD Group strive to represent Mainers who have been accused of shoplifting. Groundless accusations for taking something from a store without paying for it happen all the time and are often nothing more than vindictive claims by storeowners against patrons who have rubbed them the wrong way. Unfortunately, the penalties for a shoplifting conviction can be life-altering.
Call MCD Group for the help you need at (207) 571-8146 or contact us online.
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