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What is Shopkeeper's Privilege

Gauri Huddar
Shopkeeper's privilege gives shopkeepers the right to detain a customer for a reasonable amount of time, if they suspect that the customer is, in fact, a shoplifter and trying to smuggle goods out of the shop. Read on to know more about this privilege.
Usually, a shopkeeper is at a loss when he knows that a suspect is shoplifting, but doesn't have any proof to take action against him. In such cases, the suspect usually gets off without having to pay for his crime. 'Shopkeeper's Privilege' is a law that has been established for cases like the one mentioned above.
A shopkeeper can detain a suspected shoplifter for a reasonable amount of time, while he makes sure that the person he has held back is actually guilty of the crime he has been accused of. So how much time is 'reasonable' time, and when can a shopkeeper detain a citizen? Let's find out.

Shopkeeper's Privilege: A Tort Law

A Tort Law is one that addresses the wrong done to a person. If proven guilty of a tort crime, the guilty has to pay monetary compensation for the wrong/ damage that he has inflicted on the plaintiff. There are 3 types of Tort Laws - Negligent Torts, Intentional Torts, and Strictly Liable Torts.
A shopkeeper's privilege falls under the category of Intentional Torts, and is in place for the prevention of shoplifting.
A shopkeeper's job is not easy, specially if the store is big and there are not enough people looking after it. Shopkeepers constantly have to be alert, in case someone tries to steal something right from under their nose, while their attention is elsewhere, or when they are distracted.
If a shopkeeper happens to spot a customer doing something suspicious, like putting a small item in his pocket, and preparing to leave without paying, then he can detain the customer till he confirms his suspicions, and not permit the customer to leave the premises.
Once he has confirmed that the accusation was wrong, the customer is free to go, but if the accused proves to be guilty, then the shopkeeper can inform the local authorities, and the guilty person will be arrested or slapped with a suitable fine.
While detaining a suspected shoplifter, a shopkeeper can exercise his shopkeeper's privilege, but there are also certain rules that he has to follow while detaining someone, else he can be held liable by the authorities for misconduct or abuse of privileges. Here is what he has to be careful about when detaining a shoplifting suspect:
  • Firstly, he should have solid grounds for detaining a suspect. A 'notion' or 'hunch' is not good enough when detaining someone.
  • He can detain a suspect only as long as he is in the shop/ it's premises/ in the immediate vicinity of the store's premises.
  • The detention time should not exceed the time it takes to ascertain the necessary facts, to prove the suspect either guilty or innocent. Detention for more time than absolutely necessary, may land the shopkeeper in legal trouble, and make him liable.
  • The shopkeeper cannot use any form of force to detain a suspect, unless the suspect resists his request, or resists detention by using violence himself, i.e., by physically hurting the shopkeeper to try to escape detention.
  • Under no circumstances is he allowed to arrest any citizen. He can detain the citizen, if proven guilty, till the police arrive on the scene. If he arrests the citizen, his actions will be judged under the category of 'arrests by a private citizen'.

When is Shopkeeper's Privilege Applicable?

It is applicable as long as the above stated requisites have been established, and the shopkeeper isn't guilty of abusing his privilege. If the shopkeeper fails to stick to, and work within the privilege, then he may end up losing his privilege, and the customer/ suspect can then sue him if he thinks that his actions demand it.
In this case, the shopkeeper himself falls prey to a Civil Tort/ Criminal Statute. But if the shopkeeper has acted within his privileges, then if, after investigations, the suspect is proven innocent, the shopkeeper is not liable in any way to anyone, even if he had to resort to physical force/ violence, to detain the suspect.
So basically, a shopkeeper's privilege is used for the purpose of investigation of an alleged shoplifting/ theft. The basic intention of this tort is to pull out a shopkeeper from a seemingly helpless position, and give him some authority to act on his suspicions, and challenge the suspicious person, till he is assured that his suspicions are wrong.
Shopkeeper's Privilege is now being usurped by better laws/ statutes that allow shopkeepers to investigate stolen property/ goods, as well as recover them from the accused, which is an extension of the basic shopkeeper's privilege. In time, these too will be replaced by even better laws.