Shoplifting: know your rights – and that of the pilferer

QI’m being plagued by teenage shoplifters, who are making off with small amounts of stock before I can apprehend them. My assistant suggests laying in wait and locking the door before they escape, then calling the police. Is this legal???A No doubt you’re infuriated by these kids’ behaviour, but your plan is likely to land you in even more bother.

This was illustrated by a recent case in Derbyshire, in which an off-licence owner attempted to detain some girls stealing stock. The girls ended up throwing cans at the shopkeeper, smashing bottles, posting items of stock out to friends through the store’s letterbox and even self-harming.

Meanwhile, their friends caused mayhem outside. The shopkeeper feared for his life, but when police arrived, he was arrested on suspicion of assault.

If this sounds unfair, remember shoplifting is a notoriously tricky area of the law and it’s no wonder so many small retailers end up writing off their losses, at least when the value is small.

Remember that no offence has actually taken place until a customer has left the premises, so you can’t apprehend someone who’s sneaked a can into a coat pocket while they’re still in the store.

You should approach them outside the shop, ideally accompanied by another member of staff, and calmly explain that you believe they have stolen stock. You can invite them back into the shop, but you can’t use force to make them come in, and you certainly can’t hold them against their will.

You obviously need to decide whether the police should be involved. You’ll need to take into account the inconvenience you’ll face in reporting the crime, and what you’ll stand to gain from the person being sent to court or receiving a fixed penalty.

Bear in mind that police may already be aware of the culprit shoplifting elsewhere, and be grateful for more evidence to help secure a conviction.

As always, it pays to invest in the best CCTV equipment you can afford, to think carefully about where you display expensive stock, and to consider security tags.