Sunday, September 2, 2007

"Receipt, Please" at Circuit City

Radley Balko links to this first-person account of a fellow named Michael Amor Righi, who was arrested at Circuit City. By all means read his account for yourself, but the short version is that he went to Circuit City, picked up a few items, paid for them, and left the store. The fellow at the door asked to see his receipt. Instead of complying, he said "no, thank you" and left the store. He was pursued outside the store, had a verbal confrontation with the manager, who blocked him from exiting. Righi ended up calling the cops (because the manager was blocking his exit) and the cop arrested him after he refused to a) show the receipt, and b) show his identification. He was charged with the nebulous charge of "Obstructing Official Business," which really doesn't seem to fit the facts. At least if you believe his account, he didn't do anything to, well, obstruct the police officer, other than refuse to submit to search or hand over his identification.

His account is detailed, and I have to say I vacillated between thinking he was a jerk and admiring his spunk. But he leaves out one key fact: did the Circuit City have a sign, prominently displayed in the front, which indicated that bags were subject to search? If so, then he agreed to enter private property under certain terms, and he should be bound by those terms. I think that Balko gets it exactly right:

If stores like Circuit City make clear that when you step onto their property, you agree to have your bags searched when you leave, then those are the conditions you agree to when you enter. Don't like it? Then shop elsewhere.


Now, I do happen to agree with Righi when he suggests that meek compliance with such demands is not exactly a good sign:

I am interested in living my life on strong principles and standing up for my rights as a consumer, a U.S. citizen and a human being. Allowing stores to inspect our bags at will might seem like a trivial matter, but it creates an atmosphere of obedience which is a dangerous thing.

Absolutely. Likewise the degrading and largely pointless rituals at aiport security and other places. But instead of welching on the deal he made with Circuit City when he entered this store, Righi has an alternative way to protest their policy: he can refuse to shop there. And with this internet thing, he can even organize he fellow search-objectors to refrain from shopping at stores like Circuit City and Best Buy en masse.

Nor is it likely that these stores implement such policies because they want to condition us to life ground beneath the heel of our corporate overlords. Rather, I'm guessing they pay somebody to sit outside the door and ask for receipts because such stores are prime targets for shoplifters. And I am guessing that they have a policy of asking everybody because their lawyers have told them that a more focused approach, where they ask some people but not others, will leave them open to discrimination claims by those who do get asked to their receipts.

I do think it was reasonable for the cop to ask to see his receipt, but once it became clear that the goods were not stolen, I don't see why it was necssary to take him into custody.


society girl said...

Boy, oh, much to say about this one.

I am not convinced a notice that bags will be searched would have any legal affect.

Let's look at the issue from a contract law perspective. The normal "contract" in the retail setting is the store offering to sell goods to the consumer at posted prices, and the contract is completed when the consumber takes the goods to the cash register and pays the posted price. Offer, acceptance, consideration.

So, now let's say there is a sign saying that, in addition to paying the posted price, an additional term of the contract is to agree to having your bags searched. So, then, what would the remedy be if, after paying for the goods, the consumer refuses to let the store search his/her bags? Yes, technically, you could claim a breach has occured. But if the consumer paid the posted price for the goods, what are the damages? No damanges means no breach of contract action.

Niether could the store claim trespass becuase it has invited the public into the store. Of course, upon the refusal to allow a bag search, the store could say, "Unless you allow the search, you are no longer welcome in our store and if you come here again, we will have you arrested for trespass." I can think of no other criminal or civil law that would allow the store to take any other action -- and certainly not false imprisonment and battery, as in this case.

Even if there was a state law that allowed retail stores to require consumers to submit to searches, with criminal or civil penalties attached for refusing, that would be a very BAD THING. Yes, today, it is just about showing your receipt and letting the store employee look in your shopping bag. As many of the bloggers are saying, why make such a big deal about such a small intrusion? But we need to ask ourselves these questions: would you allow the store to look into your purse? would you allow the store to look through your pockets? or pat you down? Must of us would say, no. How is the current practice any different? -- only be a small, very small matter of degree -- no difference at all in principle. If Circuit City has the right to search your shopping bag, then they have the right to insist on a pat down before you leave their store.

So, shame on you, cheerful iconoclast, shame on you, for not being totally outraged at the behavior of Circuit City and the police -- are you a real libertarian or not!

wacca said...