Do I have to allow stores to search my bags?

Dear Consumer Ed:

Once I’ve been given a receipt for an in-store purchase, aren’t all of the items in the bags, loose in the cart, the receipt, and even the bags themselves my property? Do I have to allow them to search my property (look through the bags) before exiting the building? If I refuse, are they allowed to detain me?

Consumer Ed says:

The law allows retail establishments to take reasonable steps to prevent shoplifting. For most retailers, the practice of checking receipts and shopping bags is a procedure that retailers ask customers to follow voluntarily as a way of aiding a store’s efforts to deter shoplifting. With a voluntary procedure, customers who do not wish to allow anyone to look in their bags would not be required to do so, and a store representative would not be authorized to detain or arrest them. There are instances, however, where the law authorizes a store representative to detain customers as they exit the store.

First, under Georgia law a store representative may detain a customer if he/she has behaved in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the customer, at or right before the time of the detention or arrest, was shoplifting or committing refund fraud.

Second, various stores have an anti-shoplifting or inventory control device that detects the removal of specially marked or tagged items from the store or a special area within the store. If this device is activated as a customer leaves the store or special area, a store representative could have reasonable cause under Georgia law to stop the customer in order to determine why the device was activated.

Lastly, the practice of checking receipts at the door could be authorized under a private agreement between a customer and a retailer. For example, retailers that allow shopping as part of a membership may have a provision in their customer contract that requires customers to allow a security check as a condition of membership. Depending on what the contract says, the store might be able to revoke a customer’s membership and privilege to shop if the customer refuses to comply with a term in the contract that requires the customer to allow a security check.   

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