Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff had left Defendant department store after shopping. Defendant Reinhardt, a security guard working for the store approached her in the parking lot and asked to see the contents of her purse. He determined that, despite reports of another witness, Plaintiff had not stolen anything and returned to the store.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. There exists a privilege for merchants or shopkeepers to detain those whom they reasonably believe to have unlawfully taken chattels for a reasonable investigation and thereby avoid liability for false imprisonment.
Issue. Was the trial court correct in denying the Defendants’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the basis of privilege?
Held. No. Reversed and remanded for new trial. If Defendant reasonably believed that Plaintiff had unlawfully taken items form the store, he was privileged to detain the Plaintiff for a reasonable investigation.
Discussion. This case introduces the shopkeeper or merchant’s privilege to detain a suspected shoplifter for investigation. There are two important issues with respect to the privilege: 1) whether there was a reasonable belief that an item had been unlawfully taken; and 2) whether the investigation undertaken in response to this belief was reasonable. Satisfaction of both elements will provide a defense to a claim of false imprisonment.