By Amy Feldman

By Amy E. Feldman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – When can a store detain a suspected shoplifter?

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Sometimes it’s not so easy to figure out who’s the good guy. A man shopping in a Georgia Wal-Mart was followed out of the store by two men who forced him back into the store. He called 911. He’s the good guy. Then he pulled a knife on them. Less good. They turned out to be security guards who had seen him shoplifting. Ok, they were the good guys. Or are they?

The man was charged with aggravated assault for pulling the knife, but not shoplifting. Which raises the legal issue: when can private security guards detain a suspected shoplifter?

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While private citizens don’t generally have the right to detain each other (it’s what we like to call, false imprisonment), stores do have the limited right to detain someone suspected of shoplifting as long as there is probable cause to believe a crime is being committed – if a guard has witnessed a person approach merchandise and conceal it or fail to pay for it when leaving a store.

Even so, a shop owner can only detain the person while waiting for the police and recovering the merchandise. He can’t touch or use force on the person in a harmful or offensive manner.

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If you are the accused, don’t get belligerent, simply ask for representation so you don’t turn a possibly incorrect retail theft claim into an assault charge.