Posted by Edmond Geary | Posted in Shoplifting | Posted on 24-06-2010
A food market in New York City has an unusual method of dealing with suspected shoplifters. First the security guards or other staff member takes the identification away from the suspect. This is followed by a photograph, in which the suspect must pose, holding up the items they are accused of stealing. Then the suspect is given the choice of paying the store, unless they want their photographs posted or the police called.
This is a market whose clientele is almost exclusively Chinese. For sale are frogs, turtles, eels, frozen duck tongue and congee. It has 30 video monitors in its surveillance system. When the store management seizes someone, they usually fine them $400. If the suspected shoplifter doesn’t have the money, the store holds their identification and the suspect is allowed to go get it.
There is a tradition from China that permits this practice of catching suspected shoplifters and demanding they pay up. There is also a traditional slogan that some of these markets post. It reads, “Steal one, fine 10.”
The legality of this practice is uncertain. New York law allows so-called “shopkeepers’ privileges.” Such privileges lie somewhere between a police arrest and a citizen’s arrest. New York law also allow some civil recovery, in which retailers may use the threat of a civil lawsuit to recover substantial settlements for theft, even minor theft. However, threatening to report someone for committing a crime might be interpreted as extortion.
Critics of this practice say the accused shoplifters are deprived of basic civil rights and the protections of open, legal proceedings, are denied a lawyer, freedom from coercion.
A community advocate in Chinatown claims it is extortion. Steven Wong also says that putting up pictures in public and calling someone a thief who has never even been charged with anything is a violation of their civil rights.
Police say they have not received any complaints, nor has the district attorney’s office in Queens. No one knows how widespread the practice is or whether threats of arrest are always used. But the practice is definitely used in certain predominantly Chinese neighborhoods in New York.
Many of those grabbed say they have no money. But, says the manager of one of the markets, they somehow come up with the money when faced with public humiliation and being arrested, often after calling family and friends for cash.
One woman took two bags of grapes worth about $10, one store manager said. The woman first said she had no money, but when pressed with the usual choices, she came back with eight new $50 bills. Others just say, “Run the credit card,”
The store posts photos of accused shoplifters, along with warnings in Chinese and English that read, “If we catch, we will take your photo for records and your fine will be $400 or you go to prison.” The manager says because the police do not always arrest the accused shoplifters-unlike in Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, the police always come to pick up the accused shoplifter; they transport to jail the suspect who has been arrested by a citizen at the store. Some of the stores display photographs near their cash registers of those arrested, along with their names, addresses, social security numbers. Some also have notations like, “stole medicine” or “thief.” Some of the same photos are shared by several stores, some displayed on the front doors.
Few of those arrested have spoken publicly after being wrongfully accused. One woman said when she was falsely accused in front of a crowd of shoppers, she began weeping. Another woman claimed the false accusation damaged her reputation and has caused her mental anguish. Both events made news in Chinese language newspapers, causing the store managers to apologize and promise they would train their employees better and use more sensitivity in their treatment of suspected shoplifting. Maybe they would quit parading suspected shoplifters up and down the aisles, announcing their capture.
In New York, a retailer may sue someone who has stolen an item of any value for the retail price of the item up to $1500 if the item is not resalable plus a penalty ranging from $75 to $500, depending on the price of the item. This is procedure separate and apart from criminal prosecution.
Oklahoma law has a provision similar to that of New York. Oklahoma law provides that a civil action may be brought for the recovery for items taken from a store. The person found liable for such taking may be required to pay for the retail price of the item taken if it is unsalable or the percentage of the diminished value of the merchandise due to the taking-plus the attorney fees and costs incurred in the bringing the collection action. Exemplary damages may also be assessed, damages by way of example, against the taker of merchandise. These penalties are specifically provided in addition to any criminal penalties that may accrue to anyone convicted of shoplifting.