“I Need To Check Your Bag”

May 31, 2009

A Montreal movie theatre has been ordered by a judge to pay a family $10,000 in damages after violating their privacy during a search for movie-pirating equipment.

As the media is reporting, the woman and her daughters, for some reason, wanted to see Shrek the Third at Cinemas Guzzo in 2007. Theatre staff, mistakenly thinking there was a hot market for Shrek the Third bootlegs, was searching people’s bags as they entered. While this woman and her kids did not have camcorders, they did have illegal candy, and were told to go back and lock the snacks in their vehicle.

However, the staff continued their search, and found … birth control pills. In one daughter’s bag. Mom did not know she was in the pill. A bad moment ensued. And the family eventually sued Cinemas Guzzo for $60K, and ended up, like I said, with 10 grand for violation of privacy.

The judge rules the theatre has to post signs warning customers that property searches are likely, and that staff also can’t reach into bags.

Okay, I’ve never liked this search-your-stuff policy. You see it in stores a lot here. One hardware chain in my old home town, which shall remain nameless, had a standing policy of searches for every customer. If you shopped there, the cashier would go through your bags, and even check your pockets if she wanted. No exceptions. It was pretty humiliating, and I was pretty sure, even as a kid, that it wasn’t quite legal.

When I was a young reporter, we put this to the test: I filled a camera bag with items sold in the store. I remember screwdrivers, a flashlight, a package of nails, other odds and ends (we photographed me with the items beforehand, in case false accusations were levied). I went into the store and bought something small, trash bags, I think. At the cash register, the cashier asked me to open my bag. I said I didn’t want to. She said she would have to call the police if I didn’t comply. For a moment, I considered letting her call the cops, but then I agreed, and she unzipped the camera bag. She took a quick glance inside, then zipped it shut and rung up my purchase.

“How do you know I didn’t steal that stuff?” I asked.

She shrugged. “We have to check.” In other words, she was going through the motions, and wasn’t going to risk trouble by confronting me over it. Had I been an actual thief, I would have walked away scott-free. But I wasn’t. I was a journalist, undercover. I left, and ended up with a pretty decent article that put a dent in that store’s practice after I quoted a few legal eagles who agreed that yes, it’s a privacy violation for a store clerk to search people at random.

There’s a need for searches. I won’t argue with that. A recent kerfuffle here ended in a big controversy after a high school principal heard rumours of a student selling drugs at a party off-campus, then searched that student’s possessions, found drugs, and expelled him. The kid’s mother sued the school board — a typical example of the blame game — and a secret hearing ended in the kid being reinstated. Was the principal right? Technically, no. But sometimes drastic measures have to be taken to protect kids.

A principal is in a position of power. A store cashier is not. Randomly searching shoppers is stupid. If a store suspects a theft has occurred — and I learned this in Loss Prevention Training when I was a retail salesman — call the police. The store can’t even use force to restrain a suspected thief. Call the cops. Let them do their job, under protection of law.

Now that we know Cinemas Guzzo is searching guests, what’s next? With people now suing fast-food places for making them fat, will McDonald’s have people with tape measures at the door, squeezing our bellies to gauge jiggle as we enter? Will car insurance salespeople check our DVD collections for The Fast and the Furious before assessing a quote? This is all very stupid.

Company VP Vince Guzzo said the theatre will comply, the fine will be paid, but the searches will continue. “And we’re not allowed to put our hands in your bag, which is totally understandable,” he told CTV. “I don’t want to put my hands in your bag. In fact, leave the bags in the car.”

(Note to assholes who break into cars: you might want to check around Cinemas Guzzo. No, I’m kidding! Don’t do that.)

One comment

  1. Two thumbs up. 🙂

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