May 1, 2004
Q: Sometime last summer, I went to a major department store to purchase a little more than $100 worth of items, and the cashier [copied] the department store credit card number I was using. Close to $600 worth of merchandise [was later charged] on my account. About a month later, the police arrived at my house, arrested me, and charged me with grand theft, [although the suspect identified in photos] looked nothing like me.
Do I have any legal recourse against the department store, store clerk, or police department once I am proven innocent?
— T. Toles, Via the Internet
A: Without proof that there was malicious intent on the part of the police, it’s unlikely that you have any recourse against them. “Unless you can show a clear connection between the actions of the police, acting on erroneous information from the department store, and your arrest, there is little you can do,” says Michele Roberts, a partner at Shea & Gardner in Washington, D.C., who was recently chosen as one of “America’s Top Black Lawyers” by BLACK ENTERPRISE (November 2003).
As a keeper of the law, the police department is allowed to make a mistake (i.e. making an arrest at the wrong address). But that flexibility is not provided to department stores because, as private enterprises, they act at their own peril. Therefore, if there is evidence that the cashier committed the crime, you may have a case against her and the department store. To find a criminal lawyer, contact the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (www.nacdl.org; 202-872-8600), which can direct you to an affiliate association in your area.