Mr. Chung, who is 74 years old, went shopping at a grocery store in Chinatown and spent more than $30 there. But he was stopped at the door by security after he paid for his purchases. The store accused him of not paying for two carrots, a total of 88 cents, and took away the more than $80 in cash he had with him as well as his Medicare card. The following day he had to go back to the store and pay off the balance of the fine, more than $200, to get his card back.
He didn’t report the incident to the police but instead went to the Ling Sin Association, a community organization, to complain. Attorney Robert Brown said on October 1 that it was illegal for the store on its own to decide on a penalty, hold customers or confiscate their personal belongings.
Brown, a criminal lawyer and a retired captain of the 5th Precinct in Chinatown, said if you paid for chewing gum but didn’t pay hundreds of dollars worth of purchases, it might be considered stealing. But if you paid more than $30 and left out 88 cents worth of carrots, it is illogical to think it was stolen. Even if the store believed Mr. Chung meant to steal, the correct way to deal with it is to report it to the police. Only law enforcement officials have the authority to make an arrest, confiscate property and issue summonses.
Brown said that although the law allows stores to fine customers who steal their goods, the shop still needs to report it to police. Only after the store files a lawsuit and wins can it collect the fine from the customer. Also, the amount of the fine normally should be four times the retail value of the stolen goods, and the penalty up to $75 for small items and up to $500 overall.
In Mr. Chung’s case, even if the store wins the lawsuit, the amount of the fine should be $4 and any penalty below $75.
Indeed, similar cases sometimes also happen in big department stores. Brown said a Chinese woman was unreasonably held recently at such a store for five hours. He advises that people in such situations don’t think that paying a fine will avoid further troubles. In many such cases, people who paid the fine were still arrested and charged later.
Brown said he would offer pro bono representation to Mr. Chung to get him the money back. He emphasized that anyone in such a situation should call the police.
Source via Sing Tao Daily
Translated by Rong Xiaoqing from Chinese