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Walmart Shoplifting Suspect Dies in Detention

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By Andrew Chow, Esq. on June 06, 2012 7:02 AM

A suspected Walmart shoplifter died during a struggle with store security officers in an incident that could lead to a lawsuit.

Security officers at a Walmart in Covina, Calif., caught the man allegedly trying to steal clothes and body wash -- a haul totaling less than $950, the Associated Press reports.

Walmart security staffers chased the man, who has not yet been identified, into the store's parking lot where a fight broke out.

What happened during the fight between security officers and the Walmart shoplifting suspect is not clear. But when police arrived, officers "saw the suspect appeared to be in medical distress," a sheriff's deputy told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Paramedics took the man to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.

The man's cause of death has not yet been determined. An autopsy will be performed, as California law requires a coroner's investigation to "determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all violent, sudden, or unusual deaths."

The man's detention by store security on suspicion of shoplifting is allowed by many states' laws, including California's. Called the "shopkeeper's privilege," the law allows a merchant to detain a person for a brief period of time if they have reason to believe the person has shoplifted.

Under California's law, a merchant "may use a reasonable amount of nondeadly force" to prevent the suspected shoplifter's escape, or to protect himself.

If Walmart's security staff used an unreasonable amount of force, or acted unreasonably in detaining the suspected shoplifter, they could face liability for wrongful death and even false imprisonment in a lawsuit by the man's relatives. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Bureau is investigating.

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