According to an ABC news report, a Safeway security guard was fired after interrogating a 4-year-old girl for alleged shoplifting after he saw her eat from a bag of apricots and put the bag back on the shelf. The little girl’s father apparently hadn’t noticed what his daughter had done and was quite surprised when he and his daughter were stopped by security after leaving the Safeway in Everett, Washington. After the initial stop, the guard then interrogated Savannah Harp about the alleged theft. The girl’s mother, Alissa Jones, reported that the guard told Harp’s father that the girl was banned from the store and that Safeway would be pressing charges. Savannah, who can’t read or write yet, was forced to scribble on the piece of paper, presumably an acknowledgement of her wrongdoing. Generally, anyone under the age of 14 is presumed incapable of committing a crime because they cannot appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct.
Safeway officials were apparently outraged over the guard’s treatment of the little girl and issued a formal apology to her family.
See the ABC news story HERE.
Had the incident above occurred here in California, there is little doubt Safeway and/or their guard would be held liable for false imprisonment and a whole host of other torts. Even though California law provides a retailer and their agent (the security guard) with a probable cause defense in situations similar to this, it would appear to have little to application to the facts here. In order for the privilege to apply (and a defense to a civil claim to follow), the store security guard must have "probable cause" to believe the person to be detained has "unlawfully" taken or has attempted to unlawfully take merchandise from the store's premises. Observation of a 4 year-old girl eating from a bag of apricots would hardly seem to meet that standard since the guard would have to reasonably believe the 4 year-old intended to steal or unlawfully deprive the store of their property, the apricots. Since the so-called "merchant's privilege" would appear to have no application, the merchant and their agent would likely be civilly liable for any emotional injuries and economic damages sustained. Since Safeway seems to have at least taken the right approach after the incident came to light, they may have spared themselves from the potential for a punitive damages award.
Compensation for the victims of store security misconduct should be an important concern for all Californians. When an innocent patron is apprehended and then detained by security, without adequate cause, the retailer should be held accountable and compensation paid to the victim. An Orange County false arrest lawyer with experience at handling such cases can make a fair assessment of these claims. Mr. Ralph has more than 20 years of experience handling personal injury cases, including just this type. He can be reached at 714-919-4415 for a FREE CONSULTATION.
Have you been a victim of an unlawful arrrest or detention by store security?
Nothing in this post is intended to suggest the Law Offices of Paul W. Ralph currently represents anyone involved in the news story above. This posting should not be construed as legal advice or an opinion on the merit of any particular matter. A consultation is the best way to obtain an assessment of your potential case.