Who, what, why: Can you 'steal' from fellow shoppers?

People fighting over a large TV in a box in an Asda store Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Shops including Asda in Wembley promoted "Black Friday" bargains last week

"Black Friday" sales saw shoppers fighting over goods in supermarkets. But is it legal to take items from another shopper before they reach the checkout, asks Alex Morrison.

The short answer is, probably. At least, it's probably not a crime to take an item out of someone's trolley as long as the taker does not use force or threats.

The question hinges on who owns the property before it's paid for. Under the Theft Act, which applies in England and Wales, a person must take something "belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it" to commit theft. Similar legislation applies in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland.

If the supermarket owns an item - and the taker plans to pay on their way out - they haven't deprived the owner by snatching it. On that basis this is not theft - bad manners maybe, but not a crime.

But is the supermarket the owner? The law says property "shall be regarded as belonging to any person having possession or control of it, or having in it any proprietary right or interest".

Surely a shopper has "possession or control" of items in their trolley - and can therefore be a victim of theft? Not so, says one police officer.

"There's no theft in this situation because the shopper doesn't have a 'proprietary right' over the item," he says. "To put it simply, the supermarket is still the owner."

Criminal law solicitor Richard Atkinson echoed that, saying ownership would "only transfer to the purchaser on completion of the transaction". In a theoretical example, he said a 15-year-old who picked up alcohol in a shop would leave "with a flea in his ear, never having been the owner of that bottle of cider".

But Adam Jackson, a lecturer at Northumbria Law School, said it could be argued that both the shop and the customer temporarily owned an item once it was picked up off a shelf. He said prosecution could then be possible if it could be proved that a person snatching an item had acted dishonestly, though it was unlikely in practice.

Several people were arrested during Friday's shopping scrums, and the police officer pointed out that laws relating to threats and violence still apply - so shoppers can be arrested for "all manner of public order offences... and beyond that to actual assaults".

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