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Zoey_ JD
Zoey_ JD, JustAnswer Criminal Law Mentor
Category: Criminal Law
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Experience:  Admitted to NYS Criminal defense bar in 1989. Extensive arraignment, hearing, trial experience.
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Hello, Im wondering if I should be worried about having the

Customer Question

Hello, I'm wondering if I should be worried about having the police called on me for something really idiotic (not on my part). I frequently go to my local Wholefoods to eat dinner or lunch where they have the hot bar food section. For many years now as I've been a regular customer in this Wholefoods, I and many other customers have had run ins where the staff there always suspect shoplifters by people who bring their own bags to the store (instead of having their food bagged with those regular disposable plastic bags). There have been a few times where I myself have been repeatedly borderline harassed and followed around the store, to the point that a few months ago I finally made a scene in the middle of the store with the manager about how his staff won't let people shop in peace.

In any case, 4 weeks ago I went to the hot bar at Wholefoods, went to the checkout, paid and then proceeded to find a table to eat at in the eating area. I finished most of my food and headed to the trash can area to throw one of the containers of food along with the used utensils and napkins. By this time I was already on a cellphone conversation so I didn't even notice my bundling everything to trash, the plate, utensils, napkins and receipt. I headed back to the table where I still had a fruit plate I ate for dessert, when about 10 minutes later the SAME guy I've always told to stop following everyone approached me with a grin. He said to me "may I see your receipt sir?" and I said after telling the person on the cell phone to hold on "I already threw everything away 10 minutes ago"... He gave this look of amusement almost as though he was hoping I would say that and responded with "well I never saw you pay for your food so I would need to see your receipt" and this is when I got angry.

I repeated to him once more that the receipt is already in the trash, it's been there for ten minutes and I'm not going to go digging for it just because he was standing there lying 20 minutes after I've eaten and saying to me "I never saw you pay". He pretty much at that point said he's going to call the police on me for not showing a receipt and I got furious. I realized he's trying to play this technicality game on me simply because he doesn't like me from the last time I chewed him out, so worrying that he may indeed convince a cop I somehow stole something I left the store immediately.

Since then I've shared this crazy story with other people and they told me that the law states I don't need to show him a receipt, sighting 4th amendment or something to that effect. The thing that also makes this complicated is that this is product that has already been consumed within the establishment's property, so the "stealing" aspect is very confusing as to what he could have done if indeed police showed up. Nevertheless, I still really love the food there and took my friend's advice that from now on I can tell him I don't have to show him a reciept.

Fast forward to just last night, and I again go in for dinner after not having been there for quite some time. I finished my dinner and again had leftovers on my to-go plate I intended on taking home. Before leaving the store there is a smoothie and juice making section all the way on the other side of the store which I wanted to see if they're still open, as this was already around 9PM. This smoothie section has it's own kiosk for payment so there's also no need to go back to regular grocery checkout to pay for a smoothie.. In any case, the smoothie area had no one working so I proceeded to exit the store near where the smoothie stand is.

I get in my car and as I'm already about to pull out of the shopping center, a Loss Prevention guy from Wholefoods comes running after my car and knocks on my window. Keep in mind my vehicle is ALREADY pointing towards going out of the entire shopping center. I role down my window and he begins to harras me. He says "we know you didn't pay for that now show my your receipt!" and pretty much yelled it at me. I also notice in the background behind him the SAME guy as the month prior who harassed me after the last time I ate there. I said to the Loss Prevention guy "are you accusing me of something here"? And continuing the harassment he said "we know all about you, if you don't show me a receipt we're just going to call the cops and say we saw you steal, so get out of your vehicle and come with me back into the store right now"... This is when I said enough is enough. I'm being harassed by a guy sticking his head almost into my car, and out of duress and remembering what I was told about this whole "show me receipt" business I just drove off. He yelled at me "don't worry we'll get you! we have your tag!"

So now I'm worried whether I even did the right thing if they called the police on me? Can they just lie and say they saw me steal even though it's a TOTAL lie? Will there be a warrant on my car tag now? I'm really worried?
Submitted: 4 years ago.
Category: Criminal Law
Expert:  Zoey_ JD replied 4 years ago.
Jacustomer,

If they believe that you stole from their store, they will turn your plate information over to the police and you could end up getting a citation and having to appear in court to fight these charges. This doesn't mean they have a good case. In order to convict you, the state would have to prove that you took failed to pay for goods you consumed, and they'd have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. That might be hard for them to do.

To arrest you and charge you, on the other hand, the state only needs probable cause. That's a much, much lower standard, and frankly anybody can get somebody arrest if they've a mind to do it. Probable cause is only a reasonable belief that a crime may have been committed and that you may have had something to do with it. The word of a store security guard that they don't see you paying for food you've consumed, that they've been keeping an eye on you for that reason, and that you do not show them receipts when they ask may be enough to start the ball rolling. You will know soon enough.

Meanwhile, since they clearly know who you are, are watching you, and now have your license plates as well to alert them that you're in the store, you probably should consider shopping elsewhere, or hanging onto your receipts. You can, of course, stand on principle, but so can they.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.
Thanks for the advice, however it still seems fuzzy because of a few factors.

1. Neither the Store Employee or the Loss Prevention Officer saw me eat anything. By the time I've already placed the cover on my "to-go" plate and got up, heading towards the smoothie area, the only thing to see was that I have a plate with food in my hand. This is the only time that crazy store employee crossed eyes with me as I was heading towards the smoothie section (and he was heading towards the opposite section where the cash registers are). I've been reading a lot about probable cause already, from what I've read someone needed to have visually SEEN me take some item and followed from a visual standpoint from the time I had nothing in my hands till the time I left the store "supposedly" not paying. By the time the employee saw me I had already paid, eaten and re-packed the cover over my to-go plate. So how can they say probable cause if they never visually saw me with nothing in my hands? I already had the food in my hand and it's on them to assume the food was never paid for? Can they simply lie and say they followed me the entire time, thus alluding to the proper "visual" requirement from start to finish?

2. Where do cameras come into play? They only have the in the entrances, exists and cashier areas, so I'm worried they could manipulate evidence by simply showing me walking in with no food, then walking out with food, then show some bogus video of the cashier area from some other time/date sequence to say "look he never approached the cashier section to pay, he only walked in with no food and walked out with food"...??? This is in relevance to what you said about "proving beyond a reasonable doubt"... I guess my worry is, between them completely able to lie and "say" they saw something taken when in reality they only saw me in possession of the food plate, and tie that along with them showing fragmented video of me walking and and then walking latear out, is "this" proving beyond a reasonable doubt?
Expert:  Zoey_ JD replied 4 years ago.

Jacustomer,

 

Sorry for the delay.

 

Your interpretation of what these people did or didn't see is not necessarily the same as theirs. They obviously feel that you acted suspiciously and they may be mistaking your unwillingness to cooperate with them as an indication of guilt.. Whether this will rise to the level of probable cause would be something that the police will determine if the store contacts them and once they tell their story.

 

Can people lie to get other people arrested? Yes, of course they can, and it does happen. However, more people are honest than not, and they are not inclined to make out false reports. If they do press charges, you could choose to fight the case all the way to trial to challenge what evidence they had or, if you wanted to make a deal, you could likely get one that would not only keep you out of jail but that won't brand you with a criminal record. If you are charged and win at trial, you may be able to recover something in civil court for the harassment and intimidation they are putting you through.

 

Ít's impossible for anyone here to read their minds and know whether they are going to call the police, but it does appear that they are watching you, and there may or may not be video information that would bolster their story or yours. So again, I would either avoid this store at this point or consider saving your receipts and showing them when asked.



Edited by FranL on 9/2/2010 at 1:59 PM EST

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