Tables turn on stores

Some shoppers who say they were falsely accused of theft sue

Mistakes rare, retailers say

Civil liberties lawyers see misperceptions about race, youth

May 24, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Stores say they lose billions of dollars a year to shoplifters. But they are finding that falsely accusing customers of stealing also can be costly -- in legal fees, negative publicity and potential damages.

In recent weeks, two Baltimore-area teen-agers have filed separate lawsuits against two large retail chains, claiming they were accosted and detained by security guards who wrongfully said they were pilfering clothes.

In one suit, Chenell Gardner, a 16-year-old East Baltimore girl, alleges that she was made to take off her outer blouse and empty her purse at the J. C. Penney Co. Inc. store in Eastpoint Mall by security guards who thought she had stolen a blouse but later acknowledged they made a mistake. Gardner, who is black, is seeking $83.7 million, including damages for alleged civil rights violations and a punitive award.

In the other case, William M. Stratton Jr., 19, of North Point Village in southeastern Baltimore County alleges that he was handcuffed at the Hecht's store in White Marsh Mall and taken to a security room by store guards, who assumed that he had stolen a shirt but later acknowledged they were wrong. Stratton, who is white, is asking for $1 million in damages.

The cases, pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, follow a decision in the fall by Eddie Bauer Inc. to drop its appeal of a $1 million jury award to three black youths in a 1995 incident involving a false accusation of shoplifting at a warehouse sale in Prince George's County. The store and the youths settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

Two suits involving similar issues are suits pending in Maryland courts -- one filed last year by four black shoppers who claim they were discriminated against by a Baltimore jewelry store, the other filed this month by a black Prince George's County teen who alleges he was roughed up by a security guard at a Waldorf mall who wanted him and several friends to break into smaller groups.

Civil rights activists and civil liberties lawyers draw parallels among these suits -- coming to be known as "consumer racism" and "consumer discrimination" cases -- and actions in recent years by black customers against restaurants and hotels for denial of service and mistreatment because of race, and actions against law enforcement agencies for use of racial profiling in traffic stops.

"The use of racial profiling in retail loss-prevention efforts is apparently widespread," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Henderson, who will appear on a panel on the topic at an industry-sponsored forum next month, said the problem might go beyond race to include youth.

"Young people are unfortunately viewed with suspicion in the retail trade," he said. "A kid who happens to be 18, wearing baggy clothes and black shouldn't be perceived to be a criminal."

Rhonda West, a spokeswoman for St. Louis-based May Department Stores, the parent company of Hecht's, declined to comment on the Stratton suit, but said, "Our security forces go through extensive training and extensive diversity training."

An official at J. C. Penney's headquarters in Plano, Texas, and a Rockville lawyer representing the company in the Gardner suit did not respond to several requests for comment.

Standards for accusing

Bruce Van Kleeck, director of member services at the National Retail Federation, said most major retailers have strict standards that they apply before they stop a customer for shoplifting.

"They don't want to stop anyone falsely under any circumstances," he said. "Unfortunately, mistakes happen."

Van Kleeck said those mistakes make up a small fraction of incidents of shoplifting. Shoplifting costs the industry an estimated $15 billion annually, of total retail sales of $2.6 trillion, according to the federation, which is sponsoring the panel on diversity and security at a gathering of loss-prevention experts.

"The number of falsely accused individuals is minuscule," he said. "Unfortunately, the lawsuits get all the attention."

A survey last year by Jack L. Hayes International, a retail security consultant, found that 29 large chains apprehended 717,055 people for shoplifting in 1997, up from 702,274 the year before.

`Probable cause'

Under Maryland law, merchants who detain shoppers cannot be held civilly liable for defamation or false arrest if they had "probable cause" to believe they stole something.

What that means is that a reasonable person would have done the same thing under the same set of circumstances, explained Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor.

"It's always a factual issue," said Warnken.

Eddie Bauer case

In the Eddie Bauer case, a jury found that a security guard acted improperly in falsely accusing a 16-year-old of stealing a shirt he had previously bought and detaining the youth and two companions. The plaintiffs had asked for $85 million in damages.

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