Even if you can prove you didn't steal anything and get the charges dismissed, the process can be time-consuming and pricey.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 14, 2022. It has since been updated.
A lawyer recently went viral online after advising social media users that using a self-service checkout counter might result in you being falsely accused of theft. Carrie Jernigan, an attorney and TikTok personality with 1.2 million followers, first started the fire on the video-sharing platform when she posted a video that listed three seemingly typical things she would never do because of her experience working as a lawyer. The most shocking behavior on the list for her followers was the one about using self-checkout, so Jernigan prepared a follow-up video explaining her reasons.
In the video—which has been viewed more than 2.1 million times since being posted—Jernigan explained that as a criminal defense attorney, she has seen three categories of individuals charged with theft after using the self-checkout option at the store: those who are intentionally stealing, people who made a real mistake and missed an item and others who didn't take anything at all. She went on to share that since people in the first category have become extremely competent at stealing via self-checkout, their crimes are almost impossible to identify. As a result, asset protection at big box stores is now less sympathetic to people who did not intend to steal and has begun targeting consumers who legitimately purchased an item when the business eventually realizes they are short on inventory.
Despite having no intent to steal, customers who miss an item while checking out are charged, Jernigan claims, because "big-box businesses aren't going to spend their time and resources trying to figure out if you did it on purpose." She went on to explain how those in the third group are the "truly innocent," where "most of these are not getting charged day of." Instead, they will face charges later if someone in the store's asset protection department performs an inventory count or quality control check and "later comes up short."
"So they will begin watching hours of video to see the last person who checked out with the Mario Lego set because they're two short. And, for some reason, they pinpoint that they think you did it," Jernigan added. "And because of who these big box stores are, they usually have to present very little evidence to get an affidavit for warrant signed, the charges that could land you up to a year in jail get filed, and then you are fighting for your life trying to determine what day you were at Walmart, what all you bought."
Even if you can prove you didn't steal anything and get the charges dismissed, the process can be so time-consuming—and pricey, with a lawyer involved—that Jernigan says it usually just isn't worth the risk. Several TikTok users responded to her video by sharing their own horror stories of using the self-checkout counter. "My mom accidentally left a tiny $3 lemon oil in her cart after buying $300 in groceries. She was charged with theft and had to do community service," wrote @lexiodens. "Took me 7 months and cost me 6,000 to clear my name after I was falsely accused and the evidence should have exonerated me immediately," @catladykaren claimed. Another said that they "forgot to scan an item once & now there's a photo of me in Walmart's system."