New York Civil Rights And Criminal Defense Lawyers

Racial profiling at stores is common, but can be illegal

On Behalf of | Friday Aug 21, 2020 | Civil Rights

Many New Yorkers who are black have probably experienced poor treatment at area retail stores because of stereotypes about their race.

While many notorious cases of racial profiling have happened at New York’s priciest stores, it is common at the neighborhood grocery stores, well-known big box stores and other retail establishments.

Among black Americans in New York City with middle class incomes, 4 out of 5 of those asked said that they felt stereotyped in some way while they were out shopping.

Close to 60% said that they felt like store employees treated them as potential shoplifters by, for example, monitoring their movements as they shopped.

Over half said that employees gave them little or no help, and about the same number said that they got the impression that the employees had pegged them as having no money.

In some cases, an employee directed the shopper to the cheapest merchandise or let the shopper know the price of an item unprompted.

When profiling becomes illegal

Retail stores do not have to provide the same degree of service to every person who comes through the door. However, at a certain point, retailers can get in trouble for civil rights violations.

For example, store employees have a right under New York law to detain people whom they suspect of shoplifting.  However, this right is not absolute.

The store employees must have reasonable grounds to believe a person has shoplifted. An example of reasonable grounds would be that a person has hidden merchandise. Other restrictions on this right to detain people apply as well.

Suffice it to say that shop owners do not have the same authority as the police, and they certainly don’t have the right to detain people based on how they look.

If a store exceeds their authority, then the victim of their actions can sue based on false arrest, unlawful detention, defamation or other grounds. Certain state and federal civil rights laws may also apply to the situation.

By pursuing their legal remedies, victims of profiling by private establishments may be able to recover their actual damages, including for so-called non-economic damages like emotional distress. It may even be possible to recover punitive damages or attorney fees.