Illegally detained by Costco

I’ve never been a fan of “bag-checkers” at store exits – I value the rights that the 4th amendment gives me and I object to waiting in line to be searched like a criminal. So, when leaving the Costco in Mountain View today I ignored the queue for the search squad and walked straight out the door, with my usual “no thanks” as I left. It’s the same approach I’ve adopted at all stores that try to execute searches; it usually serves me well.

In this case though, I was set upon by 3 employees (eventually including the manager, a chap named German) who grabbed hold of my cart and refused to let me leave until they had seen not only my receipt and the contents of my cart, but also wanted to see inside my handbag (which was in the cart). Nuh-uh, no way, not gonna happen – I was told that it was store policy to “check receipts to ensure that I hadn’t been charged twice for anything” and everyone insisted that it had nothing to do with theft prevention. This despite the manager stating clearly that if he had noticed a DVD in my purse while “checking my receipt” he would have assumed it was stolen and acted accordingly.

After 20 minutes of arguing back and forth with them (during which time I wasn’t allowed to leave, just stand out the front of the store), I eventually gave up and tried to show him my receipt (since he claimed to no longer care about the contents of my bag); he then tried to argue that he didn’t care about my receipt either and that I had been free to leave the whole time. I didn’t need to be told twice so I started walking towards my car; I got as far as unloading the cart into my trunk before the police showed up.

I don’t know if it’s just Mountain View PD or all cops, but this guy really wasn’t happy when I declined to show him my ID or give him my name. I tried to explain that I had declined the search initially but later had offered both the receipts and the trolley contents, and the whole time I had just been trying to leave – by this time the manager and I were both rather riled up, and leaving seemed the most sensible way to defuse things. Again though, the manager claimed he had never detained me and that I had been free to leave the whole time, despite the security guard grabbing my cart (as provable by the security cameras outside the store, if you believe it’s possible to ever get hold of the footage). The cop had spent the walk over to my car being talked at by the store manager and was further irritated by my refusal to show ID, so started raising his voice as well – I got to listen to two more lectures (one from the cop and another from the manager) about “store policies”, despite my repeatedly stated wish to just leave with the goods I paid for. The manager kept saying I was free to leave, I kept saying that I wanted to leave, and the cop kept demanding that I stay put and listen to it all over again.

So here it is. According to the store manager, “company policy” states that you are required to show your receipt upon leaving the store. I’m no lawyer but the law here is pretty clear – Stores are not allowed to search you or your personal belongings when you leave – they are also not allowed to detain you for refusing the search. In my case they only grabbed the trolley, not me – the latter would probably constitute assault if you really wanted to press the issue. If you value your civil rights I recommend taking a large bag with you if you’re forced to shop at Costco. Place your goods in the bag at the till and just walk out the door – they are not allowed to look in your bag unless you let them, and they’re not allowed to detain you if you choose not to let them look. You’re also not required to show ID if they call the cops – police cannot compel you to show ID unless they have probable cause to believe a crime was committed, and refusing a search doesn’t give them the probable cause they need.

Could I have handled it more calmly? Yeah, dropping the F-bomb in front of an irritated cop probably wasn’t the best idea. Is it possible the store manager wasn’t actually told that I was prevented from leaving? Maybe – it’s possible he thought I just wanted to hang out for a half-hour arguing with people. Did anyone in this situation (even the cops) have the right to search my bag, stop me from leaving, or produce ID? No, they did not.

Know your rights, people – don’t stand for this crap. Sure it’s only Costco, but it’s conditioning people to just blindly accept the erosion of their civil rights, and that’s simply wrong. The 4th amendment is a beautiful thing – in my opinion it’s worth the half-hour of hassle to defend it.

//edit: jandrick pointed out that on page 29 of the costco membership agreement there’s a pretty-much unconditional consent to search. Well I guess I’m breaking that rule – if it’s enough of a problem then Costco can feel free to revoke my membership for doing so. However, they still can’t detain me unless they actually see me commit a crime, and refusing a search (while a possible breach of the member agreement) is not a crime.

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