Store used 'standover tactics'

Questions raised over shoplift 'fine'

KATHRYN KING
Last updated 12:00 05/02/2014
Emma Watty
MURRAY WILSON/Fairfax NZ
BLAMED: Emma Watty feels she was unjustly treated after walking out of a Palmerston North department store without paying for a bottle of shampoo.

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A bill handed to a new mum who walked out of a Palmerston North department store without paying for a bottle of shampoo has been branded "standover tactics" and legally questionable.

Palmerston North's Emma Watty, 24, was shopping with her 12-year-old niece and 4-month-old baby when she was stopped by Farmers store security in The Plaza, having dropped a $16 bottle of shampoo on her pram, and walked out with it last Friday afternoon.

Ms Watty paid for the item, but was banned from Farmers for two years and handed a "civil recovery demand" of $295.

She was subsequently also banned from The Plaza for two years.

Police were called but Ms Watty said she didn't have a criminal record and was let off with a warning.

She said she had been intending to pay for it along with a beauty procedure she wanted at one of the beauty counters, but had forgotten about it in the 15 minutes she'd had to wait to be seen by the beautician. She paid for her treatment, and walked out.

The bottle was lying in view across her baby's legs, with the pram hood pulled back, not tucked away or hidden, she said.

Security caught up with Ms Watty as she went to enter another shop a short distance away inside The Plaza.

She said she was extremely embarrassed and apologetic, but as she tried to explain it was an honest mistake, security allegedly told her "I know what you mothers are like with your prams".

All up, she spent about half an hour in a back room with security, and part of that time was spent feeding her baby. She had to send her niece to heat up his bottle because she was not allowed to leave the store.

Her mugshot was taken on the shop floor.

"I just felt really humiliated, like it was a power trip for him."

A request from her to watch the footage was rejected, she said.

Palmerston North lawyer Tony Thackery strongly suggested Ms Watty get some legal advice before paying the bill.

"I don't think they can enforce it like it was a liquidated claim - they would have to establish loss and what they're seeking is appropriate damages," he said.

"She should be saying to them ‘I want the justification for that and a breakdown about how they arrived at that figure'."

Otago University Law Faculty Dean Professor Mark Henaghan said Farmers would have to take the matter to the Disputes Tribunal to try and enforce such a fee.

"There's no automatic enforcement right here at all."

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Prof Henaghan said that for the criminal act of shoplifting, a person would have to intend not to pay.

"Forgetfulness is not shoplifting," he said.

"These are kind-of standover tactics.

"No lawyer would tell her to pay that in those sorts of circumstances, I'm pretty sure."

Prof Henaghan said he had heard of other department stores imposing similar fees, but they were effectively "taking the law into their own hands", when they should be arguing for a law change so they could impose such fines in such circumstances on a statutory basis.

Ms Watty said she understood there had been cases of people stealing things by putting them in prams, but each situation should be treated on a case-by-case basis.

She didn't mind so much being trespassed from one store, but she loved The Plaza.

"I just felt like an idiot, I was angry at myself. A lot of mothers have said to me they do stuff like that.

"If I had noticed it, I would have gone back and said, ‘I've just noticed this shampoo', and paid for it, because I'm honest."

The Plaza management confirmed they were looking into Ms Watty's situation after one of her friends posted her tale on Facebook.

It had since garnered a number of comments from other parents who had done the same thing.

The new mum was on medication for post-natal depression, and it tended to make her quite forgetful, but she didn't want to use that as an excuse, she said.

Farmers national loss prevention manager Nathan Breed said the "demand" - they do not call it a fine - was a flat rate that was applied to all shoplifters.

It was a "reimbursement of the costs associated with attempting recovery of our goods and administration with the investigation and interview processes".

Farmers reserved the right to pursue any and all available legal remedies if it was not paid, he said.

Farmers had a "zero tolerance" policy towards theft, and once it had been confirmed a crime had been committed, a trespass notice was issued immediately.

Although there was a review process if a shoplifter felt unjustly treated or there were extenuating circumstances, there had been no such request for a review in this case, he said.

- Manawatu Standard

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