Accusing Shoplifters - Extortion or Defending Property?

A Manhattan judge recently ruled against the retail giant Macy’s in a class action lawsuit, ordering the company to stop detaining suspected shoplifters and demanding payment for “damages” in exchange for their release.[1] Two accused shoplifters from the Macy’s Manhattan store said that they were “detained for hours, told they could not go home before they signed a confession, and coerced into paying hundred of dollars in damages.”[2] In fact, one of the accused shoplifter’s credit cards was taken and charged for $500 against her will. They were then turned over to the N.Y.P.D. and arrested on criminal charges. The charges were later dropped. That story immediately raises a number of red flags.  How has Macy’s been allowed to take such action? If the police held individuals against their will, until they signed a confession, and paid money, then there would likely be some serious headline scorching constitutional violations. But, Macy’s is a private entity and not a government actor. As such, the wronged individuals cannot allege violations of their civil rights, and must rely on the civil court system to assess damages and penalties.

At issue is some vague language in New York’s General Business Law statute that reads: “[a] retail establishment for the purpose of investigation or questioning … as to the ownership of any merchandise … shall be in defense to such action that the person is detained in a reasonable manner.”[3] The key phrase here is “reasonable manner.” To that end, the judge stated, “Macy’s has combined the power it was given under the statutes by using this power as a double-edged sword instead of a shield. . . Macy’s treads on a thin line between permissible and impermissible behavior … A suspected shoplifter is given no opportunity to otherwise object, have a hearing, or receive guidance from counsel before signing a confession and then agreeing to pay penalties.”[4]

Many states have analogous statutes that often place a limitation on the merchant’s behavior by turning on what behavior is “reasonable.” So, what is “reasonable” in this context? That is the question here, and the answer, at least until laws are changed, is that the attorneys are paid to persuade the finder of fact as to what constitutes reasonableness.

If you or someone you know has been unlawfully detained after being accused of shoplifting, call an experienced attorney immediately to ascertain your rights.


By Ara M. Baghdassarian, Esq., Barnes Law

Ara is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.



[2] Ibid.

[3] New York General Business Law § 218;