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 Lin Sing 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.
The incident happened on September 24. Mr. Chung said he went to the grocery store alone and paid $36.48 to the cashier. On the way out, he was stopped by a security guard that Mr. Chung said searched his shopping bag and accused him of not paying for two carrots. The guard also accused Mr. Chung of stealing an apple that was in the bag, which was given to him by his senior center, and asked him to pay a fine of $300.
Mr. Chung said he gave all the $80 or so he had in his pockets to the guard. But the guard asked him to leave his “white card” as collateral and come back for it with the rest of the money.
The next day, Mr. Chung’s son had to go back to the store with $200 or so in cash to get the Medicare card back.
Mr. Chung said he didn’t mean to steal anything, but he didn’t know why the two carrots were not charged in the receipt. He said this was the first time he was put in such a situation in the 28 years since he came to the U.S. from Taishan, China. He felt he was mistreated so he went to Lin Sing for help.
Eddie Chiu, the advisor at Lin Sing, said cases like this where a store makes an unreasonable accusation of stealing and fines the person or confiscates their personal belongings happen frequently in Chinatown.
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.