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Can A Store Owner Hold Me For Suspected Shoplifting In Delaware?


Shoplifting charges in Delaware depend upon the value of the property stolen, and the penalties increase accordingly. You could be arrested for a misdemeanor or felony based upon the dollar amount as described in Delaware’s shoplifting law, with penalties including long prison sentences and steep fines. However, the circumstances of an arrest for shoplifting are often different from other theft crimes in one key respect: It is often the case that the merchant will detain, question, and hold a person until police arrive. This seems to contradict constitutional and criminal laws, since the merchant is not an official with the power to arrest.

In fact, it is completely lawful for a store owner to hold someone for suspected theft. Still, because there are constitutional implications, there are strict limitations on the so-called shopkeeper’s privilege. A New Castle County theft defense lawyer can provide details and assist with your case, and some background helps explain the concept.

Overview of the Shopkeeper’s Privilege: Under the Delaware shoplifting statute, a merchant is allowed to detain someone when there is probable cause to believe that they have committed acts of shoplifting. Plus, the merchant has a privilege in the sense that there will be no civil or criminal liability if there was probable cause. The limitations on the law include:

  • The nature of probable cause, which requires more than a mere hunch. There must be facts indicating that a crime has been or is about to be committed.
  • Only a merchant/owner, store supervisor, or employee aged 18 or older can detain a suspected shoplifter.
  • The detention must be for the purpose of calling police and waiting for officers to make the arrest.
  • A merchant can only hold someone for a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner. Placing a suspect in a secured room for an hour or so might be reasonable, but keeping someone in handcuffs for 4 hours is not within the shopkeeper’s privilege.

Penalties for a Shoplifting Conviction: At minimum, the crime of shoplifting up to $1,500 is a Class A Misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and a $2,300 fine. When the stolen property is valued above $1,500, the offense is a Class G Felony.  A judge could order a maximum of 2 years in prison and a fine. Plus, a sentence for shoplifting usually includes an order to pay restitution, paying the store owner back for theft.

If you do not have a criminal record, it may be worthwhile to consider options for resolving shoplifting charges by plea bargaining. The prosecutor may agree to a probation before judgment, in which the charges are dropped if you comply with the court’s terms.

Get Help with Defenses from a Delaware Theft Attorney

The penalties for a conviction on shoplifting charges are severe, so it is wise to retain legal help as early on in the criminal process as possible. To learn more about defenses, please contact Attorney Michael W. Modica at 302.600.1262 or via our website. We can set up a consultation at our offices in Wilmington, DE to learn about your situation and discuss potential strategies.



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