Thursday, December 20, 2007

SHOPLIFTING AND SCARY NOTICES

From time to time we get calls from people who have been caught shoplifting. Generally, they’ve been caught red-handed by store security, and released a short time later after some paperwork.
More often than not the police did not attend the scene and were informed of the incident after the fact by store security.

Our callers often ask us about a ”Notice Prohibiting Entry” that store security has either gotten them to sign or else just given to them. This form tells the caller that he or she is banned from the store for a period of time (usually a year), and warns that if he or she breaches the ban, “you may be subject to arrest without warrant and charged with an offence and subject to a fine pursuant to the Trespass Act.”

Often store security also serves the person with a “Notice of Intended Legal Action,” which states that the store intends to seek compensation in civil court for various alleged expenses. The notice is followed up by mail with a demand letter. Sometimes this arrives after criminal proceedings have been completed, sometimes not. The letter essentially demands that the caller pay a specific sum of around $500 to compensate the store for “investigative and administrative costs.”

Since most people think of shoplifting as a criminal rather than civil matter, this all comes as a bit of a surprise. What’s the deal with these notices? Is shoplifting a criminal or civil matter?

Technically, it’s both, but these notices and demand letters need not cause undue concern.

As for the “Notice Prohibiting Entry,” the fact is that stores, while generally open to the public, are private spaces, and owners or their agents can indeed ban anyone they want (unless they do so for reasons that violate the B.C. Human Rights Code).
If you try to steal from their stores, they can ban you. The language of the notice, while technically true, is rather overblown. “Subject to arrest without warrant” means that if the person comes back, store security can stop the person again and remove them from the store. As for “you may be charged with an offence and liable to a fine,” the likelihood of this actually happening is practically zero. Such a charge would have to be approved by Crown Counsel, and we’ve never heard of such a case.

Nonetheless, stores are private places, and if you’re banned you should stay away for the stated time.

As for the “Notice of Intended Legal Action” and demand letters, these are rather misleading. Technically, the store can sue a would-be shoplifter, but the amount of money a court would order in the vast majority of cases is so low that it is almost never cost-effective to actually carry out a lawsuit. So in nearly all cases, if you just ignore these letters, nothing happens. It’s also very important to note that payment or non-payment of the amount demanded has no impact on whether or not Crown Counsel will lay a criminal charge, and no impact on what sort of sentence may be imposed. The civil side and the criminal side of the matter operate separately.

In short, don’t panic, but don’t do it again!

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