How Tesco’s Private Police Force Unlawfully Imprisoned My Client

I have blogged before about how arrogant, aggressive, and/or ill trained security staff can all too easily turn retail shops into their own private fiefdoms, meting out ‘law and order’ as they see fit, as if they were the sheriffs of some Wild West Town.

This kind of behaviour is present across the sector, including amongst security guards at ‘blue chip’ supermarkets, as demonstrated by the case of my client John Coulson, who suffered shockingly at the hands of Tesco staff in April 2021.

At approximately 10pm on the evening in question, John entered a Tesco Extra Store in London to purchase medicine and other items for his 5-year-old daughter, who was unwell.

This was just a routine shopping trip.  John selected a number of items and paid for them at the self service tills. As required by the Coronavirus regulations, John and all other adult shoppers were wearing face masks, and carefully observing the rules.


However, just before John reached the exit from the store, an unmasked security guard approached him and blocked his route, demanding that John hand over his shopping bag and receipt.  John was a little taken aback, but immediately complied.  The security guard did indeed take John’s bag, which also contained his receipt, but strangely did not bother to examine its contents.  Instead, the security guard stated that John had previously stolen from the store. John was shocked, and briefly dropped his mask to show his face in the assumption that the security guard would realise his mistake – but this made no difference. The security guard was then joined by several other members of Tesco staff, who made John empty his pockets whereupon his phones (work and personal), wallet and car keys were seized.  He was then escorted through the store and into a back office.

Once in the office, John’s exit was blocked by staff members and he was effectively held prisoner in the small room.  John’s jacket was thoroughly searched and John was obliged to empty his pockets and lift his t-shirt to allow the staff to see his waist band. 

Understandably, John was objecting to this outrageous treatment and repeatedly told the Tesco staff that he had stolen nothing and asserted that if they thought he was a thief, they should call the Police.

However this offer was ignored, and instead the security guard now used his own mobile phone to take a photograph of John.

All of these events were captured on the store’s CCTV system, and they make disturbing viewing.  The Tesco staff had taken John prisoner and were effectively behaving as a private police force – abrogating to themselves the right and prerogatives which actual Police Officers are only entitled to utilise in accordance with the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE 1984) – such as detaining a person in a ‘cell’ searching him, confiscating his belongings and photographing him. 

Another member of staff then entered the room and identified himself as the night manager of the store.  The manager claimed that he too had encountered John before and accused John of having stolen alcohol.  John disputed this (never having met this man, or committed any criminal offence) and again asserted his complete innocence.  However, it seemed increasingly certain that the Tesco staff had decided to ‘round’ John up because of a mistaken identification of him with someone else (during a time when all of the population were required to wear masks in public!), and not because of any evidence/suspicion he was attempting to ‘shoplift’ on this occasion.

Furthermore, just like the original security guard, the manager himself was not wearing a mask, but seemingly regardless of this, got very close to John, causing John to fear possible Covid infection.  John had been instructed to remove his own mask before he was photographed. This was sadly yet another example of the Tesco staff being a law unto themselves.

The Tesco staff then left the room and John was locked in.

After several minutes, the Tesco manager returned and handed John a letter, stating that he was banned from the store for 12 months.  His possessions were then returned to him and he was allowed to leave. 

John, a man of entirely good character, was shocked and deeply upset at the way he had been treated and the accusations with which he had been smeared.  He made a complaint to Tesco Head Office the same night and some 2 months later John received a letter offering a lukewarm apology – stating that the incident was as a result of ‘mistaken identity’ and accepting that John should never have been stopped.  No mention was made in the letter however, as to what had been done with the photograph which the security guard had taken of John without his consent.  Does it now decorate a wall of ‘Tesco’s most wanted?’

After fully acknowledging that John should neither have been stopped or ‘banned’ from the store, the writer of the letter then seemingly went out of her way to bury any apology beneath the most soulless type of corporate double-speak she could come up with – “We aim to provide the best customer experience possible at all times and it is very disappointing to hear that wasn’t the case on this occasion”.

I think most of us would agree that being taken prisoner, locked in a room, photographed, put at risk of Covid infection and then banned from your local store, is not particularly close to the top of ‘best customer experiences possible’ but the writer of the Tesco letter then went on to add further insult to injury by enclosing the derisory sum of £75 by way of Tesco vouchers ‘as a gesture of goodwill’. John had, in fact, already incurred significantly more than that amount obtaining counselling to address the anxiety and distress this incident has caused to him.

You will not therefore be surprised to learn that John was not satisfied by Tesco’s mealy-mouthed retraction of their ban, or paltry offer of financial compensation. He has instructed me to pursue a civil claim against Tesco Plc, which is ongoing, although I’m pleased to confirm that Tesco have admitted liability.

Of more long term concern, however, is the fact that a significant number of Tesco employees – including security guards and managers, and presumably not just confined to a single store in London – clearly believe that they have a power to search a person and confiscate his property without any evidence of an act of shoplifting, and furthermore they likewise have a power to detain a person whilst they issue him with a ‘banning letter’ (compounded in John’s case by the gross error of the ‘mistaken identity’, of course). 

Not only did the Tesco staff in John’s case set themselves up as a kind of private Police Force, but also, it seems, as Judge and Jury of their own kangaroo Court – incarcerating John and then handing down a ‘banning letter’ as his ‘sentence’; and at no point feeling any duty to involve the real Metropolitan Police (quite probably because they knew that they lacked any evidence which could have convinced a Police officer to arrest John).

There is no doubt that Tesco are entitled to refuse individuals entry onto their premises, but even when it is not a case of mistaken identity, such power would only extend to using reasonable force (often merely words) to eject a trespasser from their premises – not to take him prisoner, which is what they did to John.

Likewise, any action to detain and search a shoplifter depends on the staff having an objectively reasonable suspicion that an act of shoplifting is in progress which would involve their ‘target’ having been witnessed taking an item without paying for it, or otherwise behaving in a suspicious manner – and not simply because they don’t like his face.

Sadly, the lawless acts of security staff who have too much power without enough responsibility have spiralled on other occasions into tragedy .  Fortunately, that was not the case with John, but he has nevertheless been significantly traumatised by his experience and I trust that by pursuing this claim on his behalf to the maximum extent available to us, John and I will be teaching Tesco Plc a salutary lesson about properly training and supervising their staff. 

Bringing a civil claim for restitution, is the only way to rein in such abuses by security staff who clearly have no proper understanding of how the law works.

Individual claims may not seem to have the power to make a monolithic corporation like Tesco change its staff culture, but the cumulative effect of such cases can make a big difference and, as they say – Every Little Helps. 

My client’s name has been changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.