Powers of security guards regarding shoplifting

What is a security guard used for?

A security guard is somebody who is employed by an organisation to protect property, people or assets.

Most security guards work in some kind of store. Their main duties are to observe everything that is happening in the store and to look out for suspicious activity – in particular shoplifting. They do this by patrolling the store, using CCTV or guarding the entrance to the store. If they see any suspicious activity – such as shoplifting – their job is to deal with the matter in the best possible way. As there is likely to be a shop full of other people, causing a scene may not be the best route to take.

What powers does a security guard have?

Security guards have the same powers as any other member of the public – if they see someone who they suspect is committing a crime, they can make a ‘citizen’s arrest’, as long as certain conditions are satisfied.

Under s 24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, a security guard can make a citizen’s arrest for most indictable offences (including either way offences) if:

  • someone is in the act of committing an offence, or who the security guard has reasonable grounds for suspecting them to be in the act of committing an offence; or
  • an offence has been committed and the person the security guard wants to arrest is guilty of that offence or who they have reasonable grounds for suspecting they are guilty of it.

The arrest will only be lawful if:

  • it seems to the security guard that it is not reasonably practicable for a constable to make the arrest instead; and
  • the security guard has reasonable grounds for believing the arrest is necessary to prevent the person:
    • causing physical injury to themselves or others;
    • suffering physical injury;
    • causing loss of or damage to property;
    • escaping before a constable can take responsibility for them.


To detain a suspected shoplifter, a security guard is entitled to use a ‘reasonable’ amount of force. Under s 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 they may ‘use as much force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large’.

Powers of search

Security officers do not have the power to force someone to submit to a search of their property if the person is there and does not give their consent.

They are, however, allowed to search property if it is left unattended in suspicious circumstances. They can also search the property of an unconscious person to try to identity the unconscious person and it is in that person’s welfare.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.