Criminal Law

Supermarket theft and criminal damage – legal questions answered

Are you allowed to try a grape in a supermarket? Can you flick through a magazine? We answer legal questions on supermarket theft and criminal damage.

Supermarket theft and criminal damage – legal questions answered ©-Thomas-Jansa-Fotolia

Supermarket theft and criminal damage – legal questions answered ©-Thomas-Jansa-Fotolia

Supermarket theft and criminal damage

The last time you were in a supermarket, did you see someone try a grape? Did you see people flicking through magazines for a long period of time? Or did you open the packaging of a product to have a closer look?

When it comes to supermarket etiquette, what actions are legal and what actions are illegal?

Eating a grape is theft

Trying fruit in supermarket is theft. It used to be called theft of food. Now the crime is labelled petty theft.

Such crimes are very rarely pursued formally. However, the supermarket owner may require you to pay for the food you consume.

It is always best to ask before you try a fruit. Only in rare cases would a supermarket owner deny you the opportunity to try a grape.

It is also considered theft if packaged food is opened and eaten before it has been paid for. It is generally a well-known custom in supermarkets that goods belong to the customer once they have been paid for and the customer has left the checkout.

Intention to pay

Even if a consumer has an intention to pay later, for example by placing the empty packaging on the conveyor belt, their actions are still considered to be theft.

At the time the product was opened, it had not been paid for and therefore did not belong to the consumer. The customer is therefore criminally liable.

However, some supermarkets are willing to turn a blind eye, provided the consumer shows the empty packaging at the checkout and pays for the product.

Criminal damage

Opening the packaging of a product also justifies criminal liability on the grounds of criminal damage under § 303 of the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB). However, where the value of the products is low, the authorities will only pursue the matter if the supermarket chooses to press charges (§§ 303c, 248a StGB).

Reading magazines

Consumers are generally permitted to read a magazine before they make a purchase. This is because consumers are allowed to examine a product before buying it.

If, however, the consumer makes the magazine unreadable as a result of flicking through it, they can be required to make good the damage by paying for it.

Exception: house rules

Supermarkets and shop owners may make an exception to this general position in their house rules. If this is the case, consumers must observe the rules and perhaps try to find the magazine in another store.

Christian Solmecke is a partner at the law firm WILDE BEUGER SOLMECKE. He is the author of numerous legal publications in the area of internet and IT law. He is also an associate lecturer for social media law at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

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