"Talk to My Lawyer" is a weekly series in the Charlotte Observer newspaper. This week taps Michael Greene of Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Murray, whose practice includes criminal defense.
Question: Sometimes when I'm leaving a discount store, an employee near the door will ask to see my receipt before I leave. This is most common when I have a large item that won't fit in a bag. Do they have the right to stop me and ask to see my receipt? The item is mine after I've paid for it. And would a store employee be able to stop me and ask to see my receipt in the parking lot?
Answer: Yes, a store representative may stop you and ask for your receipt at the door. They may also follow you to your car and request proof of your purchase. Several stores champion this practice. Most convenience stores are privately owned and have a vested interest in seeing that their merchandise is not stolen.
Failing to show your receipt to a store employee could result in you being detained by a store's loss prevention officer who, among other duties, is responsible for apprehending shoplifters. These individuals may detain you and also follow you to your car if they believe that you have illegally taken merchandise. They may also call the local authorities.
Loss prevention officers are not sworn police officers and convenience stores are not owned or supported by the state or federal government. As such, your 4th Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures are not actionable.
In the event that a store employee goes beyond the scope of his or her duties and causes an individual either physical harm or mental/emotional distress, the remedy would be a civil lawsuit. The relationship between individuals and stores is basically contractual in nature. Simply stated, stores grant people permission to shop, and people agree to pay for the merchandise they take from the stores.