Are customer body searches lawful?

Are customer body searches lawful?

When is it okay for a security officer appointed by a retail store to body search a customer?

Body searches in stores

Listen to Wendy on the topic below, or read the details under the podcast.

Well, not in the middle of the store, without warning, that’s for sure.

It’s an invasive act  that should only be authorised  by the management of a retail store if they strongly suspect that someone has shoplifted from them, and then only in a private room, with strict protocols being observed.

For example, if a shopper sets off one of those security apparatus alarms on leaving a store, and the trigger can’t be found in her bags.

So I was horrified to learn, from Mooceda Mthini of Chatsworth, that when she visited the Mr Price clothing store on the corner of West and Field Streets in Durban’s CBD three Sundays ago a woman security official was routinely searching customers’ handbags and their purchases and then giving them a full body search with her hands.

She’d gone to the store with her adult niece and another woman, bought a few things, and when she was stopped for a bag search at the top of the long escalator leading down to the street, she thought nothing of it, as that’s pretty routine in that area, she said.

The first clue that this search was going to be different was the way the bag search was conducted.

The woman had a really good rummage through both the Mr Price packet and Mooceda’s handbag, down to opening her cosmetics bag like it was an airport security search.

And then it happened.

"As I was closing my bag, without even asking me for permission or telling me what she was doing, the woman started searching me, with the back of her hand; up and down my body and then between my legs, with the back of her hand,” Mooceda said. "I told her: ‘You can’t do this!’ but she just ignored me and continued to search the people behind me, in the same way.”

She took the matter up later with Mr Price via email, but when her second email was ignored, she emailed me. "It’s not okay for someone to touch her body without warning or consent," she said. And she’s right.

'Violated and upset'

“I felt very violated, and very upset. I really couldn’t believe it…"

Not getting a response from the company made things worse. “I chose to take it further because i am sure there are a lot of people that go through this but they are afraid and they don’t know who to speak to about it..”

On hearing Mooceda’s story, I decided a site visit was in order so I took myself off to that CBD Mr Price, had a little browse, then chose a couple of things, queued to pay and then queued again to have both my newly acquired packet and my handbag searched. I wasn’t subjected to a body search, and nor was anyone else in the store at that time.

I took a photo of the woman and Mooceda confirmed she wasn’t the security woman who had body searched her.

Asked to respond, Mr Price Apparell’s social media head Tarryn McLuckie said the company was “truly upset” to hear about what Mooceda had been subjected to.

“We’d like to assure our customers that this was an isolated incident and is not conduct that we think is acceptable at all. Our customers have always been of the utmost importance to us, which is why we have a strict code of conduct in place with our security company to ensure incidents like this do not occur.

“We’ve since launched a full investigation and have taken corrective action with the security guard to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Although we were unable to reach Ms Mthini from our side, the security company has contacted her and apologised.”

Are body searches lawful?

Can someone refuse to be body searched in public. Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t suggest doing that at the airport, by the way - that’s a safety issue and not a shoplifting one. Very different.

As I said, in stores such searches should be done rarely, on strong suspicion that someone has shoplifted something, and always in a back room with at least one witness. 

As for bag searches, handbags are searched to check whether you’ve stashed merchandise in there, while the packets of things you’ve bought are checked against the slip to make sure that you aren’t in cahoots with the cashier who slipped some things though without scanning them.

But those routine searches should be disclosed at the shop entrance. 

Naturally no-one can be accused of shoplifting until they have left or about to leave the store without paying with someone, which is why all this action usually happens at store exits.

The bottom line is: companies have the right to take measures to reduce shoplifting, but not at the expense of their customer’s dignity. 

And that means treating every person as a valued customer or potential customer until the moment evidence of theft is found, at which point the police should be called.

It’s ridiculous for a store to take someone’s money at the till, and then have security personnel subject them to a humiliating pat down a few seconds later. 

Or even rummage through their possessions without any courtesy or respect.

Well done to Mooceda for taking a stand.

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