Tucked away in the back of Macy’s flagship store in New York City, there is a room that looks more like a jail than a wing of a department store.With wooden benches and holding cells, this room – eerily dubbed “Room 104” -serves as a place to detain, question, and sometimes collect fines from suspected shoplifters.
Strange as it may seem, there are some benefits to having this room right inside the store,most important of which is it allows for immediate action to be taken against shoplifters without involving the police. A system like this wouldn’t sound so bad, assuming accusations were always accurate and detainment reserved for shoplifters who were caught red-handed. However, this is not always the case.
In the case of the NYC Macy’s store, customers who were suspected of shoplifting were taken into cells in the back of the store, forced to wait on wooden benches for hours, and then asked to confess their crimes and pay fines of up to five times the original price of the merchandise that was reportedly stolen. Unsurprisingly, Macy’s wound up facing lawsuits from individuals claiming that the store took illegal action against them by wrongfully accusing them and then forcing them to pay undue fines.
Why It’s Important to Know Your Consumer Rights
Although shoplifting laws vary by state, it is actually quite common for states to allow certain periods of detainment for suspected shoplifters.In Colorado, this part of the law is fairly vague: merchants “may detain and question [suspects]… in a reasonable manner.” What’s “reasonable” in this case?That’s up to a judge to decide. As for fines, there’s no language in our laws that discusses them clearly.
Despite the unfortunate vagueness, it is very important that you know your rights. Knowing how the law protects you as a consumer will decrease the likelihood of being coerced into false confessions or admission of guilt.
In regards to detainment, it’s only an option if a number of factors have been met:
- Probable cause must be established.
- Accusations of shoplifting can only be made after a suspected individual has left the store.
- As mentioned above, there are (vague) limits to how much time an individual can legally be detained in these circumstances.
Even if these factors are met and an individual is justly detained, the most important thing to remember is that,without exception, you have the right to counsel.
The Right to Counsel
If you are ever involved in a situation like this, you should take full advantage of your right to talk to an attorney. Even if you are completely innocent and the possibility of being accused of shoplifting seems impossible, there is no harm in first having a conversation with an attorney.
Store employees, security guards, or even police officers might try to coerce suspected shoplifters into confessions by use of various intimidation tactics such as bringing suspected shoplifters into mysteriously named rooms, keeping them in holding cells or in handcuffs, and offering seemingly fair deals (such as promising “not to involve police” in exchange for a signed confession).
Tactics like these are sometimes used to frighten individuals into confessions, but they are misleading and unfair. Speaking to a lawyer or having one present during your conversation with security officers will help you avoid falling into these traps. Remember, your right to legal counsel is probably the most important tool you have if you are ever caught in a situation like this.With a lawyer on your side, you’ll be less likely to be coerced into confessing or forking over fines that you shouldn’t have to pay.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.