Trial nears in suit against mall

Shoppers say search, claims of shoplifting were humiliating

May 31, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Just before Christmas 1995, the Allen family and a friend were shopping for presents at The Mall in Columbia when they were accused of shoplifting and then searched by a store's employees - not just once, but twice.

As a result of those searches, the Allens and their friend have filed a lawsuit against the mall and its security guards, the Learningsmith store and store employees, alleging that the family and friend were unlawfully detained, searched and humiliated in front of a crowd of shoppers.

The case is set for a crucial hearing tomorrow in Howard County Circuit Court. Like many lawsuits, the case is complicated and loaded with accusations and cross-allegations - an unusual set of circumstances for the mall, an integral part of James W. Rouse's dream for a harmonious planned community.

Sandra Allen, 46, a single mother and nurse who lives in a townhouse in Laurel, says she's pursuing the lawsuit because she worries that these kinds of searches happen too often.

"I can never go through this again," Allen said.

Though the Allens and the friend, who are black, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in 1996 and alleged racial profiling , a federal judge said there was no evidence of discrimination and dismissed the case on other grounds.

The Allens and the friend filed suit last year in Howard County Circuit Court, dropping allegations of racial profiling, though the suit raises the question of racial profiling by saying the plaintiffs are "African-Americans."

The mall says its security officers acted appropriately that day. Though attorneys declined to comment, the mall's legal filings blame Learningsmith employees, saying "there is no basis for liability against the Mall or its officers."

In court papers, Learningsmith, which filed for bankruptcy in December, also denies the allegations.

The trial is scheduled for June 5.

The incident at issue began about 10 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1995, as Sandra Allen, her daughter, her two sons - Christian, then 14, and Jonathan, then 7 - were shopping with their friend, Chelton Thorpe, then 14. They were also joined by Allen's mother. The Allens entered the main food court, and the boys went off to explore the nearby Learningsmith.

A Learningsmith employee said in a deposition that a customer, whom she described as a white woman in her late 30s or early 40s, approached her and reported that two young black boys were shoplifting.

"She mentioned something about a small item," said the employee, Eveyln Eichorn. "She pointed them out by telling me what they were wearing, where they were located, that kind of information." The small item was a hackey sack.

Eichorn alerted the store manager, who then called mall security guards. One of the guards said in his deposition that the boys appeared "nervous" and they were walking around the store.

Three security guards were standing at the entrance to Learningsmith when Allen called for her boys and Chelton.

As the three left, Eichorn told the two older boys, Chelton and Christian, to stop and said: "I have to ask you, if you have anything that belongs to the store please leave it here."

In court papers, Allen alleges that the guards participated in the stop, blocking the exit. In her deposition, Allen says that one of the guards might have ordered the search, though later she concedes it might have been Eichorn.

The mall counters that Eichorn approached the boys without any "input" from the security officers, who did not say "anything to the boys at this point."

Allen approached the group and asked what was going on. After Eichorn told her that a customer had reported that the boys were shoplifting, Allen told the boys to "take your jackets off, empty your pockets, lift your shirts up, empty your pants pockets right here," according to her deposition.

The boys complied. Nothing was found.

Allen and her mother say the family tried to leave but a security guard would not let them go. The mall counters in court papers that any detention could "not have lasted more than a few minutes." The boys then joined their grandmother, sister and Christian's younger brother, who was not searched, at the food court table.

A few minutes later, another Learningsmith employee approached the boys at the food court and, according to Allen's deposition, told Allen that he "needed to search the jackets again." The boys and Allen consented, and nothing was found.

The Mall distances itself from that Learningsmith employee, Jeremiah Herb Gallay, saying that he acted "on his own and without any instruction or prior knowledge of the officers."

Allen followed Gallay back toward the store and asked for his supervisor. Gallay then asked to search Allen's bags, according to Allen's deposition.

The store manager told Gallay to go back into the store, said Allen, who also filed a complaint that night with the mall.

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