Generally, yes. When a store manager or security guard suspects someone of trying to steal something or conceal it with the intent to steal, they can detain the person. They can look through the person’s bags and even hold them until police show up (if they decide to call the police).

The law is vague on how far a store can go. It says that the store must have reasonable grounds to believe you were stealing and then they can detain you in a reasonable manner for a reasonable amount of time.

I think they’re supposed to actually see you take the item from their shelves or wherever it’s kept on display. Often, people bring merchandise from other stores with them, or have something on them that they purchased at that store on a different day. They’re also supposed to actually see you conceal it and walk out of the store or at least past the point where you’re supposed to pay. Ultimately, it’s your word against theirs.

We hear from people who want to sue the store or the person who held them for doing so without any basis. Being detained by store security is not an arrest by police, so all those constitutional rights aren’t at issue. If they follow the law on detaining you in a reasonable way, even if you’re completely innocent, you won’t be able to sue for false arrest or illegal detention.

And, unfortunately, even if the detention IS unreasonable, it’s most likely not a lawsuit. Lawsuits are based on physical injury or monetary loss. It’s going to be hard to prove you suffered either. Attorneys who file lawsuits on behalf of injured clients only get paid if they win, and their fee is a percentage of what they get for their clients. If there isn’t a dollar amount at stake, they’re not going to waste their time on the case.

There are limits, of course. You can’t be detained for a super long time. And a store owner or security guard can’t be overly physical with you. But unless something egregious happens to you, a lawsuit isn’t the way to go.

Many retailers these days recover losses from theft by sending out civil demand letters. They hire a law firm to do this. The letter says you have to pay a couple hundred dollars, or else they will sue you. These are legal, but the threats might be empty. It’s often not worth it to file a lawsuit to collect such a small amount.

So it’s generally a good idea to cooperate and not fight if you are detained. The security guard will probably let you go without calling the police, so long as you didn’t try to steal anything major and you don’t cause trouble. If police are called, your rights kick in and you can (and should) get an attorney before answering questions. And in both cases, it’s a bad idea to sign a confession without legal advice.