As false imprisonment lawyers located near Charleston, South Carolina, we’ve written this article to educate consumers and shoppers about their rights when they’re falsely accused of shoplifting or theft. For example, imagine you’re shopping in Wal-Mart, you buy a bag of Doritos and a Coke, and a security guard stops you in front of other customers, accuses you of shoplifting, searches you, and locks you in a room until the police arrive. Now imagine you’re depositing money at a bank and as you exit the bank you’re tackled to the ground by a swarm of police officers pointing shotguns and assault rifles at your head because the bank called 911 and reported a robbery. These are real-life examples of false arrest and false imprisonment we’ve handled in South Carolina.
Essentially, when a shopper is wrongfully detained or arrested, the shopper has several potential civil claims against the store including: (1) false arrest and imprisonment; (2) malicious prosecution; (3) civil assault and battery; and (4) defamation.
False Arrest & False Imprisonment in South Carolina
False imprisonment is the unlawful detention or restraint of another’s freedom of movement, for any length of time, without justification or consent. There are four principal elements in a false imprisonment claim:
- The confinement must be without the victim’s consent. Confinement can occur in a number of ways, including using a physical barrier (locking someone in a room) or by threats of force.
- There must be an intent to confine the victim.
- The victim must be aware of the confinement or be harmed in some manner by it.
- The victim must not be aware of any reasonable means of escape.
Many stores in South Carolina have a policy that they won’t stop a person for shoplifting unless the person actually exits the store without paying for the merchandise. However, this type of policy isn’t required by law, and not every store follows this type of “exit” policy. Instead, many stores rely on what is known in South Carolina as the “shopkeeper’s privilege. The “shopkeeper’s privilege” means that a shopkeeper (a merchant) may detain a person briefly inside or outside of the store if:
- The merchant delays the shopper in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable time to investigate, and
- The merchant had reasonable cause to believe that the person committed the crime of shoplifting.
An example of “reasonable cause” is when a shopper conceals merchandise while they are in the store. Under South Carolina law, if you conceal merchandise while you’re shopping (such as putting items in your pockets or your purse), then there is a legal inference that you had the intention to steal those items. However, if you’re stopped by store employees or security BEFORE you’ve had a chance to make it past the checkout counter, then there’s a good chance that any criminal charges against you will be dismissed and that you’ll have a civil claim against the store for false imprisonment and other claims.