Being wrongly accused of shoplifting can be frustrating and insulting – but things can be taken to a whole new level when the shop persists on unfairly targeting you.
Fortunately, courts look unfavourably on bullying – as Mr Soo discovered in his battle against police and department store Myer.
Mr Lin Seng Soo was a keen customer of Myer – until a chain of events caused him to take his business elsewhere.
Mr Soo was shopping in Myer’s hi-fi department when a security guard thought he recognised him from store footage as a man who had stolen crystal ware just a few days earlier. The security guard, Mr Evans, then asked Mr Soo to accompany him to sort the matter out, then interviewed him in the security room for an hour. Mr Soo cooperated fully – giving his personal details and even producing receipts to show that he had purchased items from the store.
About a week later, a police officer by the name of Barrett obtained a warrant to search Mr Soo’s home. Barrett was the officer that was originally alerted the crystal ware incident.
Police turned up at Mr Soo’s home at about 5:30pm, when he was with his wife and children. They searched his house for about an hour, finding nothing.
Despite this, they took Mr Soo to the police station for a formal interview. At the end of the saga, police concluded that he was innocent.
Mr Soo was very unhappy about his treatment at the hands of the department store staff and police, so he sued Myer and the six police officers involved in his investigation – including officers Sterling and Mann who had detained and questioned him.
He claimed that Myer had “wrongly directed and procured members of the police force to detain” him, and that he had been wrongfully imprisoned on two separate occasions: first in the store, and then when he was taken from his home to the police station. He also alleged that the search warrant was executed maliciously and at an improper time.
The whole episode understandably caused Mr Soo great emotional distress, resulting in anxiety and depression.
The judge in the first hearing was sympathetic to the police, finding in their favour. But he was not so sympathetic towards Myer, finding against the department store giant. The judge was particularly unimpressed by the fact that the store manager was not called to give evidence.
Myer appealed the decision to the Victorian Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Appeal
On appeal, the Justices of the Supreme Court affirmed the decision against Myer. In reaching that decision, the court weighed the competing interests of shops who wanted protection against theft against the individual rights of the consumer, stating that:
“Appealing as may be the plight of stores and supermarkets in wishing to deal more effectively with the increasing menace of shoplifting, the law has not seen fit to condone any further encroachments on the liberty of the individual beyond those well recognised situations where arrest with or without the aid of police has been traditionally considered justified. Better that such losses be counted part of the cost of doing business than that they be minimised at the expense of individual freedom.”
The Justices awarded Mr Soo aggravated damages because his treatment was a “significant insult to an innocent man and entitles him to an award of damages.”
Justice Murphy watched the store footage several times before reaching the view that it was not reasonably open to anyone to identify Mr Soo. His Honour, who wrote the leading judgment, found it “a little alarming” that Officer Barrett managed to obtain a search warrant with so little evidence, stating that:
“A false imprisonment does not merely affect a man’s liberty; it also affects his reputation. The damage continues until it is caused to cease by an avowal that the imprisonment was false… No apology was forthcoming. No admission of any mistake was ever made by Myer… In my opinion, aggravated damages should have been awarded the respondent to compensate him for the added hurt to his feelings and the mental anguish perpetuated by the continued insinuations of suspicions of his guilt right up to verdict.”
Mr Soo was awarded a total of$10,000 plus legal costs and interest against Myer and officers Sterling and Mann.
If a security officer, shop assistant or police officer approaches you in relation to a suspected shoplifting incident, it is important to know your rights.
If you are dealing with security staff or a shop assistant, they have no right to search your bags, cannot touch your belongings, and are not permitted to detain you unless they actually saw you stealing. If they did not and detain you anyway, they can face charges of assault and/or civil proceedings for false imprisonment.
The situation is a bit different when it comes to police, as they have the power to search and arrest people if they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an offence occurred.
If you have been charged with shoplifting, a good first step is to contact an experienced criminal law firm for advice about your options and the best way forward.