A transgender man who was accused of shoplifting and strip searched filed suit for invasion of privacy, false arrest, and discrimination earlier this month. More details have since emerged.
The incident occurred in May at the Food Fair grocery store in Essex County, New Jersey. Nautica Pagan was at the store to sell his phone to someone, and he entered the store close to its closing time.
Store manager Elvis Rodriguez said that a security guard thought he saw a sausage in Pagan’s pants and wanted to search him. Pagan told the security guard that what was in his pants was private, but the guard insisted on searching him and called the police for a female officer to conduct the search.
Pagan tried to leave the store but the security guard allegedly blocked his exit. The guard, who is a county sheriff’s officer, had an aggressive demeanor and put his foot down in front of Pagan.
“I was asking God to please get me out of the supermarket as fast as possible,” he said. Instead of waiting for the officer to arrive, a female cashier was sent to the restroom with Pagan so that she could see what was in his pants.
Pagan said that he was humiliated and was in tears throughout the incident. “Never I’d say I faced any discrimination in my life, until this point,” he said. The security officer apologized as Pagan was leaving.
Under New Jersey law, a shoplifter can only be detained if store security has probable cause to believe that they stole something. Probable cause is usually established by witnessing a shoplifter hiding something or leaving without paying while holding the store’s property. Pagan’s suit for false arrest claims that the store did not have probable cause.
Rodriguez, the store manager, insists that Pagan stayed voluntarily and that the incident wasn’t that bad. “I felt horrible when [he] was telling me [he] was crying and everything but did we detain [him]? No,” Rodriguez said, misgendering Pagan. “Did we force [him] to show us [his genitalia]? No. We basically told [him] we need to see what’s in your pants because [the prosthetic] was very exaggerated.”
He said that the store is in a high crime area and that lots of shoplifting happens near closing time. He said that Pagan might have drawn attention because he was leaving without buying anything.
He added that salami is one of the things shoplifters usually steal. “It’s expensive and they sell it to little corner stores and stuff like that,” he said.
Rodriguez said that the officer did not discriminate because he would have searched anyone under those conditions, no matter their gender.
Robyn Gigl, an attorney and a former Garden State Equality board member, said that the case rests on whether Pagan consented to staying. “I think it’s a very fact sensitive case as to whether or not there was coercion, whether or not there was consent,” she said.