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Here's what you should do if you're falsely accused of shoplifting, according to lawyers

By NICK GARCIA Published Mar 16, 2023 12:37 pm Updated Mar 16, 2023 3:18 pm

A Pinoy customer in a now-viral video lamented false shoplifting accusations he got while visiting a popular supermarket's branch in Muntinlupa.

"Pinagbintangan ako nang Puregold Putatan Muntinlupa na may nilagay sa bag ko at ayaw akong pauwiin kahit gutom na ako hangang di nakikita ang lahat nang nasa bag ko sa huli napahiya sila," Marco Yutuc wrote in the caption of his Facebook video posted on the night of March 12.

In the video, Yutuc can be seen emptying his backpack in front of Puregold Putatan staff, including a security guard. A store employee wearing a violet shirt is intently looking at the items Yutuc was bringing out, while the security guard can be seen using her wooden stick.

Yutuc explained that he was supposed to buy a particular deodorant brand and kind, so he brought an old one he had for reference.

But alas, the moment he returned the reference to his bag, he was already accused of shoplifting.

"O, nakikita mo naman," Yutuc told the staff with much frustration. "May nakita ka ba? O, mag-sorry ka sa akin."

In another video, Yutuc, who told the staff he's 60 years old, said he had a receipt to prove that he really bought the new item and didn't steal it as falsely claimed.

And if he was indeed doing something suspicious, Yutuc said he should've been immediately held for questioning at the shopping aisle and not when he was about to leave the building.

Many netizens who came to Yutuc's defense also pointed out how he was questioned not in the security office but rather in front of the counter where everybody can see him and therefore giving him much shame and embarrassment.

In a statement posted as a Facebook Story, Puregold said the management really felt bad for "Tatay," pertaining to Yutuc, and how the situation was handled.

"Please know that this incident is being dealt with privately, with kindness, and patience," Puregold said. "We ask that you allow us to learn from this and improve."

Since Yutuc's case isn't the first of its kind, what can—and should—individuals do in the event that they get accused of shoplifting or stealing?

Strongly deny any claim, repeatedly confirm innocence

Atty. Dem Villanueva of RRV Legal Consultancy Firm told PhilSTAR L!fe that the accused should answer any claim made against them and strongly deny if need be.

"Ask for CCTV footage to show the physical impossibility of the theft and where the item was allegedly stolen," he said.

Atty. Katrina Gaw, Executive Director at Macro Group of Companies' Business Development & Legal Affairs, told L!fe that the accused must "definitely" repeatedly confirm their innocence. 

“The moment you are cornered and being pressured to claim guilt," Gaw said, "you can say it’s your right to be presumed innocent and to ask for a lawyer to represent you."

The accused must, as much as possible, take note of important facts like who is speaking to them and who are those around them, especially those who can support their case.

"Recalling as much as possible will help later on," noted Gaw, who placed fifth in the 2018 Bar exams and is also in private practice.

If the accused would be confronted in a public space like Yutuc, Gaw said they are entitled to ask to continue the discussion elsewhere.

File a criminal complaint for oral defamation/slander, seek damages

The accused may file a criminal complaint and seek damages especially if the false accusation affected their well-being or lost support and opportunities after the fact, according to Atty. Nadaine Tongco-Edades who's in private practice.

Tongco-Edades told L!fe that what happened to Yutuc may constitute oral defamation or slander, defined as “speaking of base and defamatory words which tend to prejudice another in his reputation, office, trade, business or means of livelihood."

"The words uttered by the offender need not be true and the case will prosper as long as the imputation is malicious and defamatory," she said.

Gaw noted that the following criteria must be met to constitute slander:

  • defamatory imputation;
  • publication of the charge, i,e., the accusation was made in a public place where everyone could hear and the person could be embarassed;
  • identity of the person defamed, i.e., the accuser directly and clearly accused the person; and
  • the existence of malice, i.e., the accuser intended to make a malicious accusation without basis.

Under the Revised Penal Code, as amended by Republic Act No. 10951, slander is punishable by imprisonment of one day to three years or a fine ranging from P20,000 to P100,000, depending on the severity of the crime.

Moral damages and attorney’s fees may also be awarded to the offended party.

Article 2217 of the Civil Code states that moral damages include physical suffering, mental anguish, fright, serious anxiety, besmirched reputation, wounded feelings, moral shocks, social humiliation, and similar injury.

The accused may seek damages from the employee, as well as the business owner as they're also subsidiarily liable for crimes committed within their establishment according to Tongco-Edades.

Villanueva said the accused may also file for unjust vexation, or the annoyance, irritation, torment, distress, or disturbance to the recipient. It can lead to imprisonment of up to 30 days or a fine ranging from P5 to P200, or both.

Write a demand letter

To initiate the case against the employee/s and the establishment itself, Atty. Daniel Fordan of Tungol Tan Fordan Law Offices said the accused must write a demand letter first.

The letter should indicate what the accused wants from the accuser, like public apology and compensation.

If not met, the accused may reach out to a lawyer to draft a complaint.

"Once the case has been filed, there will be several mediations where the court will try to find ways for the parties to settle the issue," Fordan told L!fe. "If the mediation fails, that's the time the trial begins."

Security not necessarily malicious

Be that as it may, Tongco-Edades pointed out that what the Puregold employees did may not necessarily automatically be deemed as malicious, as everything is still on a case-to-case basis.

She cited an instance when a customer was also falsely accused of shoplifting and was able to prove the store staff wrong by showing a receipt for the purchased item. The customer initially didn't seek damages.

Things escalated when the store sent a demand letter to the customer's employer, falsely claiming the customer didn't pay for the item. That's the time the customer sought damages from the store on the basis of abuse of rights.

"We cannot just say na may bad faith na agad if there are heated arguments or commotion between the accuser and the wrongfully accused person," Tongco-Edades said. adding that any privately-owned business is well within its prerogative to put security measures in place.

Still, she reminded businesses that they should be mindful of how their security measures are enforced by their employees to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to any civil or criminal liability on their end.

"As what they always say," Tongco-Edades said, "respect begets respect." (with Brooke Villanueva)

(Editor's Note: Minor changes were made in this story to accommodate the statements from Atty. Nadaine Tongco-Edades and Atty. Daniel Fordan.)