Shoplifters end up on wall of shame
New York stores threaten to display photos and call the police if suspected thieves don't pay $400 on the spot.
Owners of several stores in New York City have found a novel way to combat shoplifting: They photograph the accused shoplifter with the stolen items, then threaten to call the police and display the photo unless the accused antes up $400 or so.
In a report on this practice, The New York Times wrote:
In an example of the wall-of-shame style that certain stores use, a grocery called NY Tak Shing Hong, on East Broadway in Manhattan's Chinatown, posts photographs near the cash registers, some bearing names, addresses and Social Security numbers of the persons depicted. Several also include simple descriptions in Chinese, like "Stole Medicine" and "Thief."
Many of the stores that use this practice cater to Chinese immigrants, who are willing to pay to avoid encounters with the police. Those who don't have legal immigration status fear being deported if they are arrested. A shoplifting conviction can even result in the deportation of a longtime legal immigrant with a green card.
It's unclear whether what the stores are doing is illegal or a violation of the shoppers' rights.
"If a store owner says he'll call the police unless you pay up, that's extortion, that's illegal," Steven Wong, a community advocate in New York's Chinatown, told the Times. "And putting up pictures in public, calling someone a thief who has never even been formally charged, that's a violation of their civil rights." He is representing two women who say they were unjustly accused of stealing.
But shopkeepers, many of whom have extensive video surveillance in their stores, say the practice is necessary to deter theft. Even when they call the police, the shoplifters aren't always arrested, said Wu Jian Si, manager of the Chang Jiang Supermarket in Flushing, N.Y. If the shoplifters are arrested, he said, "The most they'll get is 24 hours."
What about the law? The Times says this:
New York State law allows "shopkeepers' privileges" that fall somewhere between the prerogatives of the police and a citizen's arrest. The law also details "civil recovery statutes," by which retailers may use the threat of a civil lawsuit to recover substantial settlements for even minor thievery. But threatening to report that someone has committed a crime can be considered a form of extortion.
What rights a suspect has when detained by store security on suspicion of shoplifting vary state to state. Chris E. McGoey, an author and security consultant, has an extensive section on the rights of merchants and the rights of accused shoplifters at his Crime Doctor site.
Some major U.S. retailers are more aggressive than others when going after shoplifters. Chris Walters at The Consumerist has posts about Wal-Mart aggressively going after a man suspected of stealing four bags of sugar and a couple accused of stealing some Bic lighters. On the other hand, Wal-Mart fired a clerk in Kansas recently for confronting a suspected shoplifter without following proper procedure.
It's not just Wal-Mart. The Consumerist also reported on an Indianapolis man detained and banned from his neighborhood Kroger store after he was wrongly accused of stealing $2 worth of doughnuts. One lesson here: Don't throw away your receipt until you get home.
While major retailers rarely extract fines on the spot, as the Chinese groceries in New York are doing, many do dun suspected shoplifters, even those who weren't convicted, for significantly more than the worth of the stolen goods, using the threat of lawsuits, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2008.
You can see why merchants might be frustrated with the legal system: The North County Times told the story of Matthew and Laura Eaton of San Marcos, Calif., who went on the "Dr. Phil" show and talked about how they stole $100,000 worth of toys over the years and resold them on eBay. Matthew Eaton was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and his wife got 12 months.
What do you think of the New York stores' tactics? Should shoplifters have their photos displayed and be asked to pay hundreds of dollars to avoid arrest? Are the stores violating the suspects' right to due process? Or are they doing the shoplifting suspects a favor by keeping them away from the legal system?
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