How much physical abuse can "Wal-Mart Cops" legally dish during a detainment for suspected shoplifting?
June 9, 2006 5:53 PM   Subscribe

How much physical abuse can "Wal-Mart Cops" legally dish during a detainment for suspected shoplifting? Can cops seize a car for being used in a crime when no charges are ever filed?

My wife was shopping at a Wal-Mart supercenter. During her check-out, she had a pan that did not have a price. The cashier called a CSM over to look into the pan. She continued scanning items. She was also purchasing two spindles of blank DVDs. The cashier scanned the items and then said "These barcodes are not right." She removed a sticker and there was another barcode. She deleted the two wrong scans, and scanned one and the price came up. She asked my wife if that was OK, and she said yes, that was fine. She scanned the other set and continued. The CSM left with the pan for several minutes while they continued scanning the other items. The CSM returned, did not have a price for the pan, but told the cashier that the first stickered price on the blank DVDs was the correct price. My wife asked if that was correct, and the CSM said yes. The CSM had the cashier delete the more expensive priced line items and rescan the stickers that were on the DVDs. The transaction finished and my wife went to leave.

At the exit, she was stopped by a Loss Prevention employee on her way out of the store. The employee told her "I think you know what this is for," to which she responded that she did not. He forced her to accompany him to a room inside the store. She asked him if he was a police officer, and he said he was not. He proceeded to detain her while calling the police. When she asked why he was holding her, he replied that had the right to keep her, and asked her "Haven't you ever heard of a citizen's arrest?"

During the course of her detention by Wal-Mart, the employee told her to show him her identification. She was standing at the push side of her shopping cart and the employee was at the front end of the cart. She reached for her purse to get her ID, and the employee grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the ground. He pinned her down with his knee in her back, and proceed to hold her in this position for several minutes while yelling at her. She tried to explain that he told her to show him her ID and that's what she was doing. He handcuffed her, pulled her up, and then began to yell at her some more. The line of yelling consisted of things such as "You can take this to court and contest it, but you will lose, because I am the best loss prevention person in the Midwest" (she had not suggested anything of the sort, he was pre-emptive) and "You're just a thief." He was close enough that his spit was hitting her in the face while she was being yelled at. The tackle caused her to suffer a laceration on her knee, a deep muscle bruise on her arm, and discomfort in her shoulder.

Later, when law enforcement arrived, she tried to tell the officer what happened and how she was assaulted by the Wal-Mart employee. The officer told her "Be glad it was him. I would have tased you." He refused to listen to her protests about her detainment and what was going on. When the officer went to take her out, she asked what was happening. The officer responded "You don't get to ask any questions." She was taken into his cruiser. They proceeded to drive through the parking lot while the officer pressed buttons on the keyless entry for my car (her name is not on the registration, and I was not with her) car until he found it. He then told her that she was going to have our car seized under forfeiture laws. The car was towed and she was taken to the jail intake (Large city, 500,000-1 million people).

After being held for 14 hours, she was released without any charges being filed and no citations issued. During her time, no one told her she was under arrest. No one told her what crime she was being accused of. No one told her of her rights. No one told her what was going to happen to her. No one told her anything. She was denied access to an attorney during this time.

So, here is why this is posted here. I know from previous threads and other readings that there is a certain amount of leeway offered under storekeeper rights for detaining someone suspected of shoplifting. However, this seems excessive. Did Wal-Mart's employee commit assault, false imprisonment, and other assorted crimes? Should we investigate suing Wal-Mart for the actions of their employee? Should we see action against the law enforcement agency for denying access to an attorney during processing?

Bonus question: Following up with the lieutenant who is the whole of the forfeiture unit, he told me that even though no charges were filed, they could still proceed with the civil forfeiture since the vehicle was used in a crime (She was not in the car at the time, and since no charges were filed, was there a crime?). However, since her name was not on the title, they said they would release it to me. I have to sign a "promissory note" (his words) saying that if I let her use the vehicle and it is used in a crime by her, I lose any standing for vehicle release. Does anyone else see anything wrong with that?

Obligatory throw-away account: - Contact with any questions. I won't be posting here with my account, but, will respond to e-mails (and ask that you repost them if you see fit).
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (38 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Contact a lawyer. If you can't afford a lawyer, contact the ACLU.

Read very carefully anything anyone gives you or your wife to sign. Do not sign anything that involves any sort of admission of guilt or statement of what occurred.

This is the only useful advice you'll get. Why are you even posting this? You think an internet forum is going to help you in a complex legal situation?
posted by jellicle at 6:07 PM on June 9, 2006

Contact a lawyer soon - document the injuries through a doctor and with photos.
posted by k8t at 6:08 PM on June 9, 2006

Yeah, you need a lawyer. Also consider contacting the local television news stations and newspaper columnists, after you speak to a lawyer.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:31 PM on June 9, 2006

This question is wayyyyy beyond a mefi discussion. Contact a lawyer. NOW. And yes, see a doctor ASAP to substantiate any injury claims.

Sign nothing in the meantime.

Sue them if at all possible.
posted by bim at 6:31 PM on June 9, 2006

This is far beyond the ken of AskMe. This is why we have lawyers.
posted by jdroth at 6:45 PM on June 9, 2006

As for how to find a lawyer: the phone book is your last resort. Word of mouth is the best way. Talk to any family or friends who are involved in the legal professions or in the justice system in your area and ask for a recommendation. You want a criminal defense lawyer, even though your wife wasn't charged with a crime. If you don't know anyone who might have a recommendation, ask Metafilter.

If you absolutely cannot afford a lawyer (and I think it would be money well spent), contact the ACLU. They should at least be able to give you advice regarding that forfeiture bullshit.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:47 PM on June 9, 2006

Just adding to the chorus, but, please, go to a lawyer now. Do not pass go. Do not collect.... why are you still here? Lawyer. Now.
posted by normy at 6:51 PM on June 9, 2006

And just because a police officer or a police lieutenant says something, that doesn't make it true. They've been known to lie...frequently.

Sue their asses. All of them. Especially walmart.
posted by bim at 6:52 PM on June 9, 2006

I am a lawyer, but I am probably not licensed in your jurisdiction and I do not represent you. From the description here, I think it is quite likely that Wal-Mart and the individual employee are both liable for various torts, but this will depend on the details of your specific state's laws. Likewise, while property often can be seized when used in a crime, I feel reasonably confident that a court would find there was no crime here, and thus can be no seizure. (There is probably not a case against the officer or the police department, however, unless there are details you haven't provided.)

But as others said, this depends mightily on your local law and on more details than you've provided. Seek a lawyer, now, immediately. Don't sign anything. Go find yourself a nice lawyer who will take this on a contingency and get you a five- or six-figure settlement from Wal-Mart, plus your car back.
posted by raf at 6:59 PM on June 9, 2006

Huh. If I hadn't already decided long ago never to shop at Wal-Mart, this would be yet another of many reasons to make the same decision.
posted by bingo at 7:21 PM on June 9, 2006

Lawyer up, yo. And then sue the everliving shit out of them. Calling the media, and letting them see the dramatic pictures of your wife's injuries for, well, doing nothing, might help too.
posted by sugarfish at 7:34 PM on June 9, 2006

Lawyer lawyer lawyer. Then report back to us, 'cause enquiring minds want to know.
posted by LarryC at 7:37 PM on June 9, 2006

Jesus, why was this even posted? What a waste of bandwidth. LAWYER, NOW. You shouldn't even have to ask if this was wrong, of course it was. Sheesh.
posted by hincandenza at 7:45 PM on June 9, 2006

FWIW, I work at a Super Target and am friends with one of the security people there. I've asked him about this exact kind of situation in the past, and his response has always been, "If we don't catch them in the store, we don't touch them. And, unless they get physical, we aren't allowed to use physical violence inside the store so we don't get our asses sued off."
posted by jmd82 at 7:54 PM on June 9, 2006

If this all happened inside a Wal-Mart, odds are the entire event was captured on surveillance videotape. Get a lawyer and make with the subpoena.
posted by frogan at 8:02 PM on June 9, 2006

You can probably call down to the police agency that seized your vehicle and they will release the car to you. If they will not, then call a criminal defense lawyer to get the car back for you. Vehicle seizure laws require that the vehicle be a tool for committing the crime. As such, they are taken for DWI and in drug cases where it is determined that the vehicle is being used to aid in the sale of drugs. Shoplifting does not fall into this category. If your state does have such a bizarre forfeiture law, your attorney should have little difficulty in getting the car back. However, I strongly advise you to call the police agency. If they will not give you the car, then ask them to provide the General Statute number that authorizes the forfeiture so that you can share that information with your attorney.

I also strongly urge you to contact a personal injury lawyer regarding Wal-mart. Lawyers that advertise heavily for personal injury cases are often just running personal injury factories. They do not try cases. They just try to settle as many as they can. You need a lawyer who is prepared to try the case. Ask around to make sure that the lawyer you are using has trial experience. The facts as you relate them make it pretty clear that you will be able to recover from Wal-mart. But the facts that the jury hears will most likely not be anything like what you have just related.

And for that reason, I would not get my hopes up too high for the lawsuit. Unless you have a sympathetic employee, a completely impartial bystander, or video, you stand very little chance of winning. Just like police brutality cases are only won when there is video or audio proof, cases like this are difficult to win because the store employees and the officers enjoy the benefit of being perceived as having no motive to lie. The lawsuit-happy person is perceived as having a motive to lie.

I represent a client right now who was walking out of Best Buy with a couple of video games. When asked by the store security to stop, he did not slow down. They tackled him in between the doors. He broke his ankle and it required surgery. My client is a heavy drug user and a serial shoplifter. I do not expect that we will be very successful. I am taking the case in spite of that because I think that the loss prevention people in these stores are getting way, way out of hand. I wish you the best of luck.

As for your bonus question, vehicle seizure laws typically allow for the seizure of a vehicle owned by a third party when the third party knows that he defendant is going to be driving the vehicle and the defendant is likely to be engaging in criminal activity while doing so. I am not sure if what he is asking you to sign is doing anything other than making you aware of that rule. The idea is that if your wife uses your vehicle in the commission of a future crime that you will no longer be an innocent third party. You will have foreknowledge and will not get your car back. I would not sign such a thing without consulting a lawyer, but that is very easy for me to say. I am not the one without the car.

If your state does have a statute that allows for the seizure of vehicles that are involved in shoplifting cases, then I would love to know what state you are in and what the statute number is.
posted by flarbuse at 8:58 PM on June 9, 2006

get a lawyer ... among the various things you should ask him about are three things ... if he thinks the local media should be told about your story ... and if he thinks calling their corporate headquarters to complain and indicate that legal and media action is coming is a good idea ... also, i don't know how it is in your state, but in michigan you can file a complaint against a local police department through the state police

but you need to run all this by your lawyer
posted by pyramid termite at 9:01 PM on June 9, 2006

Matt shouldn't have posted your question. You need to consult an attorney — and on the off chance that you find any apparently helpful information in this thread, you'll need to double-check that information with your attorney.

The only way you could spin this as a valid AskMe question would be, "Here are my circumstances. I have an appointment with an attorney on Monday, and I'd like AskMe to help brainstorm relevant questions that I should ask." But asking us for specific legal advice, as you've done, is wildly inappropriate. The only worthwhile advice to be offered by IANAL strangers is that your wife needs to learn that part of being a responsible adult is recognizing that just because a person tells you to do something doesn't mean you should obey.
posted by cribcage at 9:41 PM on June 9, 2006

Also, if the rent-a-cop isn't a police officer, file criminal assault charges against him if you can. That's ridiculous. Not a lawyer.
posted by oaf at 9:46 PM on June 9, 2006

After you get a lawyer, you should ask them about talking to the media.
posted by jb at 11:35 PM on June 9, 2006

Well, it's been said once or twice above, but I do have one AskMe appropriate thing to say - our society is too litigious, but this is a lawsuit that should absolutely be pursued. If anything, we're not litigious enough about this. Don't hesitate to take this one as far as you can.
posted by pinespree at 11:38 PM on June 9, 2006

Crickey - the treatment your wife recieved is utterly outrageous. Were it in the UK I would place a reasonable bet that the Police would have arrested the employee for assault, not your wife. Anyway, in conjunction with proer legal advice, I would get the press involved big-style. There is a compelling story here that your local TV / newspaper is going to find intersesting - and the coverage will really twist Walmart's arm. But speak to a lawyer first!
posted by prentiz at 2:33 AM on June 10, 2006

Another vote for a lawyer. This is exactly the sort of situation where you should sue. It's egregious, your wife was harassed and injured, her rights were violated in several ways, and they're going to keep doing this if they are not stopped. The cop was also seriously in the wrong, but you'll get nothing there, except that publicity might force the Police Dept. to take internal action. Or not.

A better question is, How do I find a lwayer who'll take this case, but who isn't really cheesy. The lawyers with the rough-n-tough ads are pretty scummy.

I'd like your permission to repost this to The Consumerist. They even have a Walmart category.

Seriously. This is terrible and should not be tolerated.
posted by theora55 at 6:47 AM on June 10, 2006

Don't sign sign untill it gets read by a lawyer.
posted by delmoi at 6:57 AM on June 10, 2006

Someone mentioned the ACLU. I would give them a call, for no other reason that they might know the best local lawyers to contact.

Also, you might not know this, but there is a way people 'steal' from places like Wal-Mart by replacing the bar-codes on items with bar-codes from cheaper items. That's probably what the loss prevention guy thought your wife had done.

Still, it's pretty strange that the loss prevention guy would have done anything physical. I worked at a target once and they were very specific that employees were never supposed to touch suspected shoplifters. Better to let them get away with $x then loose $x*100 in a lawsuit.

Anyway good luck. This is the second time that people have suggested suing Wal-Mart in AskMe.
posted by delmoi at 7:08 AM on June 10, 2006

"If we don't catch them in the store, we don't touch them. And, unless they get physical, we aren't allowed to use physical violence inside the store so we don't get our asses sued off."

Seconding this statement - I've worked A LOT of retail in my life (including A LOT of management in retail), and you are not allowed to even accuse anyone of shoplifting if you don't actually see them doing it. When I was working in a bookstore, someone could walk out with a big, book-shaped bulge in their jacket, and there was absolutely NOTHING I could do, including simply ask about it. (Yes, in the states I was in, this was actually law, but not a well-known one, otherwise there would have been a lot more thievery.) This makes for a lot of shrink, but it helps prevent situations like this from taking place.

Also, what everyone else said about getting a lawyer, suing, pressing charges, and talking to the media. Start right now if you haven't already. DO NOT let this slide after a few weeks. Stay pissed off.

Snarky aside: I *HATE* loss-prevention dudes. I know they're there for a reason (people suck and steal), but while working at that bookstore, someone made 1-900 calls repeatedly from the store. After checking the schedules, they narrowed it down to two people - me and one other guy. It wasn't me, but the LP guy took it upon himself to try to offend me and make me feel horrible about being a "pervert" and threatened to tell everyone at work that I masturbated in the reference section. (I was all, "whatever, I didn't do it, can I go back to work now?") All the LP people I've come in contact with seem to think that they're fighting on the front lines of crime, and they took their jobs WAY too seriously.
posted by AlisonM at 7:13 AM on June 10, 2006

Also, what everyone else said about getting a lawyer, suing, pressing charges, and talking to the media. Start right now if you haven't already. DO NOT let this slide after a few weeks. Stay pissed off.

I know you'll want to go to the media, but this is a bad idea. Most lawyers will tell you immediately STFU once you hire them. The reason is any public statements you make can end up being used in court, so if you're inconsistent or whatever it will look bad, or you could end up saying something bad for your case.

Let your lawyer handle the media.
posted by delmoi at 7:29 AM on June 10, 2006

Let your lawyer handle the media.

Oh yeah! That's what I meant...hire a lawyer and let the lawyer do all that stuff for you, probably in that order (although, would pressing charges come before suing? whatever). Yeah, don't go directly to Channel Whatever's "Help me, Howard!" or else you'll just end up being 90 second clip on the 6pm news.
posted by AlisonM at 7:33 AM on June 10, 2006

IAAL. My advice is get your own. Yesterday.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:19 AM on June 10, 2006

IAAL as well. Stop reading this and call a lawyer right now. If you need a referral, send me a note (email in profile).
posted by MeetMegan at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2006

I haven't read each word of every post, because they whole experience galls me, so forgive me if I missed something.

If this was over the DVDs, and they were accusing your wife of putting fake stickers on them, remember, the CSM was the one who finally suggested scanning the wrong price. Your wife was fine either way.

It sounds like not only were they out of line, but they set her up to make it happen.

Get a lawyer, get a lawyer, get a lawyer. Sign nothing. Document everything.
posted by 4ster at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2006

Matt shouldn't have posted your question.

Matt made a good decision. She might not have been convinced she needed a lawyer, or that she even had the option until reading the responses. I don't think there's any doubt remaining now.

And I'd just like to second subpoenaing any and all store video for that day, before they "conveniently" tape over it. Time is of the essence.

Lawer lawyer lawyer. Now now now.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:26 AM on June 10, 2006

Has there ever been such a unanimous set of responses in AskMeFi?!
posted by normy at 11:31 AM on June 10, 2006

You're a walking fact pattern for my bar exam.
It's extremely important to get a good lawyer, not any lawyer. Get as many referrals as you can and email those in this thread that have offered to hook you up.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 11:50 AM on June 10, 2006

I'll echo everyone else, go get a lawyer now. And never, ever go to Wal-Mart again.

And I'm reposting this on my Wal-Mart site. Good luck.
posted by fenriq at 12:10 PM on June 10, 2006

Ex-Wal-Mart employee here. I'd walk down the back hallway and see the police and our loss prevention guy standing there all the time. All he ever did was yell and tell them if they ever set foot in that store again they'd be in big trouble. Never saw him get physical, but heard he'd had to a couple times, only AFTER the alleged shoplifter got physical first. If the alleged shoplifter was female, the loss prevention guy would pull a female employee off her job to go to the back and stand in the room with him until the police arrived.

In your situation, yes, a lawyer is best. If you can't afford it, a nearby university with a law school might have free legal aid if you prove your lack of income.

In my own situation: After I quit Wal-Mart, when I'd go back to shop, I noticed CSMs (customer service managers, who despite their names, are not members of management) following me around. When I asked one why, she said "we're supposed to follow ex-employees around." I was not happy being treated like a criminal, so I called the regional manager (yes, I went over the head of the store manager.) He took care of it and said if they ever bothered me again, to let him know. However, in your case, lawyer. (Repeating for emphasis.)
posted by IndigoRain at 12:45 PM on June 10, 2006

Still, it's pretty strange that the loss prevention guy would have done anything physical. I worked at a target once and they were very specific that employees were never supposed to touch suspected shoplifters. Better to let them get away with $x then loose $x*100 in a lawsuit.

That's a good point, and that's another reason you should get a lawyer: the second Wal-Mart management hears from that lawyer, that LP dude will be gone. Immediately. It's not worth it to them to keep him on the payroll when he subjects them to that liability.
posted by raf at 1:05 PM on June 10, 2006

I'd love to get an update on what's happened since this was posted.

I posted the story on my anti-Wal-Mart blog and have gotten plenty of angry comments from "employees" who are more likely to be hired internet evangelists trying to defend Wal-Mart.
posted by fenriq at 11:43 AM on August 3, 2006

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