Ask The Consumerist: Do I Have To Let Stores Check My Receipt?

Reader Carlton writes in with a query:

“Can one legally bypass the whole receipt-checking- process once you’ve made your purchase at a store? Can you just say ‘no thank you’ to the guy checking off your receipt as you exit the door and mosey back to your warm, cozy pickup truck? Once you have completed your transaction at a store, do they have any legal right to keep you in the store?”

Aside from membership-based stores like Sam’s/Costco where you may have agreed to a search in your contract, the answer, it seems, varies by state. However, it’s safe to say that unless you’ve met your state’s definition of probable cause for shoplifting… a retailer has absolutely no right to detain you.

Let’s look at New Jersey’s definition inside.

Presumptions. Any person purposely concealing unpurchased merchandise of any store or other retail mercantile establishment, either on the premises or outside the premises of such store or other retail mercantile establishment, shall be prima facie presumed to have so concealed such merchandise with the intention of depriving the merchant of the possession, use or benefit of such merchandise without paying the full retail value thereof, and the finding of such merchandise concealed upon the person or among the belongings of such person shall be prima facie evidence of purposeful concealment; and if such person conceals, or causes to be concealed, such merchandise upon the person or among the belongings of another, the finding of the same shall also be prima facie evidence of willful concealment on the part of the person so concealing such merchandise.

To us (not legal experts), that reads “If they see you concealing something, you are in trouble.” You’ll note however that it says “unpurchased merchandise.” If you’ve purchased the merchandise, it’s likely that you’re not covered under New Jersey’s definition of probable cause for shoplifting. Therefor, a Best Buy would have a hard time justifying detaining you. If this means a lot to you personally, you could try printing your state’s shoplifting statute and presenting that rather than a receipt. We suggest simply refusing to shop at stores with the offending policy. —MEGHANN MARCO