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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. WARREN LACY (02/10/84)

filed: February 10, 1984.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
WARREN LACY, APPELLANT



No. 1541 Philadelphia 1982, Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Criminal Division, at No. 2666-81.

COUNSEL

Douglas M. Johnson, Public Defender, Norristown, for appellant.

Ronald T. Williamson, Assistant District Attorney, Norristown, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Wickersham, Brosky and Hoffman, JJ.

Author: Hoffman

[ 324 Pa. Super. Page 381]

Appellant challenges the constitutionality of the Retail Theft Act and the denial of his motion for mistrial because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct. We find no merit in appellant's claims and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of sentence.

On August 24, 1981, appellant was arrested as he left a Clover Department store and charged with his third offense of retail theft. A search by a Clover security guard yielded Clover merchandise for which appellant had not paid, in a box in appellant's possession. Appellant's motion to suppress was denied. Following a jury trial, appellant was found guilty of retail theft and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three-to-seven years. This appeal followed.

Appellant challenges the constitutionality of the Retail Theft Act, alleging specifically that the fourth amendment guidelines protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures must be followed by private security guards because they act under color of state law. We disagree. The Retail Theft statute, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3929(d), provides that:

A peace officer, merchant or merchant's employee or an agent under contract with a merchant, who has probable cause to believe that retail theft has occurred or is occurring on or about a store or other retail merchantile establishment and who has probable cause to believe that a specific person has committed or is committing the retail theft may detain the suspect in a reasonable manner for a reasonable time on or off the premises for all or any of the following purposes: to require the suspect to identify himself, to verify such identification, to determine whether such suspect has in his possession unpurchased merchandise taken from the merchantile establishment and, if so, to recover such merchandise, to inform a peace officer, or to institute criminal proceedings against the suspect. Such detention shall not impose civil or

[ 324 Pa. Super. Page 382]

    criminal liability upon the peace officer, merchant, employee, or agent so detaining.

In Commonwealth v. Martin, 300 Pa. Superior Ct. 497, 446 A.2d 965 (1982), the defendant claimed that a search made pursuant to the Retail Theft Act was illegal because it empowered the private guards to act under color of state law. Our court considered the lead taken by other jurisdictions with statutes granting substantially similar authority to private security guards and noted that "[t]hose courts, finding that such statutes are a codification of the common law's 'shop-keeper's privilege', have held that such statutes do not create police authority in private persons." Id., 300 Pa. Superior Ct. at 501, 446 A.2d at 967. The Court then held that "store employees who stop, detain and search individuals who they reasonably suspect of retail theft do not act under color of state authority." Id. It therefore follows from the holding in Commonwealth v. Martin, supra, that 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3929(d) is constitutional. Accordingly, because the Clover security guards were acting in a private capacity, rather than under color of state law, they were entitled, upon probable cause, to search appellant without applying for or receiving a search warrant.*fn1 ...


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