Q. I was wondering if it is legal in California for retailers like WalMart and Best Buy to ask customers for their receipts as they exit the store. As a paying customer, I resent being treated like a criminal. It is because of practices like this that I shop online whenever possible. I understand that membership stores like Costco and Sam’s Club have user agreements that allow them to check receipts against items in your cart, but without such an agreement is WalMart violating my rights?

Thank you for your time.


A. Best Buy and WalMart have certainly started a trend–more and more stores across the country are asking to see receipts upon exiting these days. It may be inconvenient, but it saves you money in the long run—prohibiting theft helps keep your costs down. It doesn’t violate your rights for them to ask for a receipt; you can always refuse and keep going. Only if the security guard then stops you might any violation of rights occur.

California Penal Code (CPC) §490.5(f)(1) provides that “a merchant may detain a person for a reasonable time for the purpose of conducting an investigation in a reasonable manner whenever the merchant has probable cause to believe the person to be detained is attempting to unlawfully take or has unlawfully taken merchandise from the merchant’s premises.”

Furthermore, CPC §490.5(f)(2) provides that “[i]n making the detention a merchant . . . may use a reasonable amount of nondeadly force necessary to protect himself or herself and to prevent escape of the person detained or the loss of tangible or intangible property.”

CPC §490.5(f)(3) goes on to state: “[d]uring the period of detention any items which a merchant . . . has probable cause to believe are unlawfully taken from the premises of the merchant . . . which are in plain view may be examined by the merchant . . . for the purposes of ascertaining the ownership thereof.”

And, in CPC §490.5(f)(4), “[a] merchant . . . having probable cause to believe the person detained was attempting to unlawfully take or has taken any item from the premises . . . may request the person detained to voluntarily surrender the item . . . . Should the person detained refuse to surrender the item . . . a limited and reasonable search may be conducted . . . in order to recover the item. Only packages, shopping bags, handbags or other property in the immediate possession of the person detained, but not including any clothing worn by the person, may be searched pursuant to this subdivision.

Finally, CPC §490.5(f)(7), ‘[i]n any civil action brought by any person resulting from a detention or arrest by a merchant, it shall be a defense to such action that the merchant detaining or arresting such person had probable cause to believe that the person had stolen or attempted to steal merchandise and that the merchant acted reasonably under all the circumstances.

So . . . if you refuse to show a security guard your receipt and continue walking to your car with your bag of merchandise, does that constitute probable cause to detain and possibly search your bags? It depends upon the circumstances, but most likely, yes. What would you think if you were in the security guard’s position?

What if the security guard looked in your pocket for your wallet and pulled the receipt out of there? Would that be a violation of your Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures? Nope, the Fourth Amendment only applies to police officers and other state actors, not to private store employees. You may be successful in a suit against the store for false imprisonment, however, because the California state statute specifically excludes clothing from the parameters of a limited and reasonable search.

Whatever you do, don’t overreact. You are not being targeted or insulted; everyone is being asked to present their receipt, so don’t take it personally. You don’t want to end up like the Bethlehem, PA, man who was sentenced to six-twelve months in jail for yelling at and threatening the Wal-Mart greeter who asked to see his receipt, or the Utah Wal-Mart shopper who now faces criminal charges for disorderly conduct because he cursed at a greeter, threatened to injure a security guard, and screamed at police officers who were called to the scene.

If you really just cannot bring yourself to show them your receipt, don’t lay yourself open to criminal charges by aggressive or belligerent behavior. Remain calm and continue walking. If you’re detained and think the store security guard acted unreasonably, remain cool and call the police to handle the matter. Especially if you’ve got nothing to hide.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.
Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian