Some retail stores have a so-called "Wall of Shame" featuring pictures of people who have been caught on CCTV allegedly stealing inside the shop. "Serves those losers right for stealing," you might have thought to yourself, and internally praised the business owners for taking action against those criminals. But is it legal to display pictures of suspected thieves?
Shoplifter stealing wine image from Shutterstock
We all know stealing is bad, not to mention against the law. But it's one of the most common crimes committed and it happens everywhere, not just in lower socio-economic areas either. A friend who works in a Woolworth's in one of Sydney's richest areas noted that well-dressed individuals who can clearly afford to pay for their groceries are often caught giving themselves five-finger discounts on goods in the store.
It may seem like a business owner's God-given right to name and shame those who have been caught stealing, but here is where you need to factor in the "innocent until proven guilty" rule. And whether somebody is guilty is determined by the courts, not the shopkeeper. By displaying images of alleged (key word here) shoplifters, shop owners are opening themselves up to legal action.
"They run the risk of defaming persons they put on the wall, because if they've not been convicted of any offence then they can hardly be portrayed as thieves," solicitor Tim Abbott told the ABC.
"The courts won't find you guilty of theft unless it was a premeditated or intentional act. There has to be a certain amount of intention involved, and there may be people who've got mental health or other issues that mean they may not have intended to take the article and put it in a bag."
All states and territories in Australia have passed the Defamation Act 2005, which stipulates under section 439:
(1) A person must not publish matter defamatory of another living person (the "victim")— (a) knowing the matter to be false; and (b) with intent to cause serious harm to the victim or any other person or being reckless as to whether such harm is caused.
The maximum penalty for violating these laws is a $33,000 fine and three years' imprisonment. An alleged thief who launches legal action under civil law for defamation may also end up seeking compensation. Oh, the irony.
Defamation laws also apply to social media, so shopkeepers posting images of suspected shoplifters on their Facebook page could also land in legal hot water.
If you are a business owner with a "Wall of Shame", sure, it might be gratifying to stick a person's picture up to hold them accountable to their alleged thievery, but it may end up biting you back in the bum.