Ask the County Law Librarian — Is demanding a receipt a violation of rights?

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 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

  • Tony Sheppard

    So the moral of the story is, if you want to shoplift, politely hide the stolen goods inside your clothes and then sue for false imprisonment if searched. Good to know.

    • That probably wouldn’t work. The store will most likely have video of you putting it inside your clothes, which would be sufficient probable cause for the police to search you.

  • Ben Ilfeld

    “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?”

    Has the above interpretation been tested in court? It seems to me the answer would be most likely, no. Why would someone exiting a store with merchandise in a bad (something we all do when we buy things) constitute probable cause?

    If the probable cause is because you did not offer to show your receipt when asked then the argument would be that a reasonable person would assume not showing a receipt is most likely because there is stolen property in the bag – but there are many reasons people don’t like to show receipts: most of all inconvenience!

    In the past I have read that it is legal to ask you for your receipt and it is legal not to show a receipt. I have not heard that it would most likely be legal to detain the customer after not showing a receipt. Has something drastic changed in the interpretation of probable cause?

  • Paul Brown

    I never show my receipts, except at Costco, because it’s in the membership contract. And I’ve never been detained. I just say “no, thanks” when they ask to see the receipt and keep walking.

  • A WM greeter tried to stand in front of me–I am handicapped and was using a WM provided wheelie cart–because the TOASTER OVEN I bought was In a different cart (my daughter was pushing it and I had the OTHER 2 bags of stuff we bought. The guy screamed at me and was very beliggerant–and has been in the past. He has also (on other occasions) tried to take my HANDICAPPED WALKER AWAY from me claiming that it is NOT LEGAL for me to HAVE it in the store. And I MUST leave it with HIM. Now aside from the “What if…” factor here—what IF I need the walker to get to the rest room etc…the RECEIPT thing is really troubling. WM FAILS to provide for any ID of any legit purchases that DO NOT FIT into the tissue paper thin bags they provide. And how am I to know if I am going to need a giant re-useable bag when I get out of my car? I have been inside a store when some one has called and said things like—we need a NEW toaster oven cause ours just died. And if I have things in a SOLID SIDED re-USEABLE bag—does that make me MORE or LESS suspicious? I have said on several occasions –If you are ACCUSING me of stealing than CALL THE COPS. If not—Get OUT of my WAY. According to an LP person the “correct” phrase to use if being blockaded is “You are UNLAWFULLY DETAINING ME Please allow me to leave the store” and if they STILL stand in your way YOU get to call the cops.

    It’s not so much the receipt checking it is the EXTREMELY uneven nature of it—at SAMS CLUB everyone gets asked to show the receipt and yes we DID agree to that. But at WM and other stores it is VERY random or even—you could say–targeted towards the slow moving and any one who DARES to purchase something that doesn’t FIT IN A BAG. Now I asked the LP person—IF I was to go into the store WITH a supply of WM bags and fill them (and in our theoretical world NOT get caught on camera) And I walked out with stolen items IN BAGS —-would I be LIKELY to be stopped!!!! That is the premise—that we are ALL so stupid that we are going to waltz out of WM or where ever WITH THE STOLEN LARGE ITEM IN PLAIN SIGHT. Um—-really? One of the MOST stolen items is the HUGE Dyson “ball” vaccuum. Do ya think people are waltzing this out in the BOX with NO attempt to conceal? No they are sneaking it under garden center fences at places like Lowes.

    And I GET the “shrink” or theft thing. But accusing EVERYONE of being a criminal—that is just plain WRONG. And States should treat it as such and set CLEAR AND POSTED GUIDELINES for all—stores and consumers alike.

  • three percenter

    Perhaps I my priorities are not straight, but I see a slippery slope when consumers become complacent in allowing private entities like the big box chains to stop them and request proof of payment without PC. I understand that retail stores can request a receipt from you. However, it is equally important for you to exercise your right to refuse.

    I am shocked when I read that refusing a receipt check is PC for detainment by private security. I am forced to question your authority on this subject because you don’t even give passing acknowledgement to the criteria that has become industry standard for PC when confronting suspected shoplifters. Criteria that uses US law as a foundation. You say absolutely nothing about the 6 elements of probable cause that must be followed before detainment is justified.

    Continuous, unobstructed observation of the following:
    1) suspect approaching the merchandise
    2) suspect selecting the merchandise
    3) suspect conceal, carry attempt to exchange or otherwise claim ownership of the merchandise
    Criteria for intervention, confrontation, apprehension or other means of intervention:
    4) During this process, maintain a level of observation of these events that can be held to “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
    5) Observe the suspect fail to purchase or make a good faith effort to compensate for the merchandise
    6) Apprehension must be made beyond all points of sale (or physically outside of the store)

    These standards are what the industry conceders PC for making a stop. As an LP rep of the store you must be able to prove all 6 criteria beyond a reasonable doubt, or you will risk criminal and civil liability for the company and yourself.

    Saying no to a voluntary receipt check is not one of these elements, not even by a long shot.

    I am even more shocked to see someone representing a law library making the argument that it is better to allow receipt checks in the name of saving money over encouraging law abiding citizens to be aware of their rights. This is not about saving money, or retaining personal pride. There are bigger issues at work here, most importantly our duty as citizens to be vigilant in protecting the rule of law and the rights that collectively we have worked so hard to give our citizens. This is the foundation of our justice system, not fiscal responsibility, or the rights of corporations.

    I get an unpleasant physical reaction when I hear people’s complacency or justification in matters like this. That effect was multiplied exponentially when I read your argument made from authority in justifying your opinion that the public should acquiesce in this matter.

    In the future, please conduct more research into questions you are attempting to answer. Even better, before answering, review your answer for any personal bias you may have.

    Whatever you do, I implore you, I beg you to please, please never advocate the voluntary surrender of personal freedoms, especially to private entities. I would imagine that it is very difficult to find anyone remotely connected to the CJS who would ever advocate for this.

    • Barry Fruitman

      This is why people shouldn’t get legal advice from librarians.

  • Gabriel White

    This article is simply not credible.


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