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I was taken into custody at a movie theatre. I was told by an employee that he believed I was recording the movie I was watching. I was not. The employee demanded I open my phone to show that I had taken no pictures. I was only texting someone during the show. Can I sue the movie theatre?

Probably not. But you would have to be more specific in describing the way you were texting during the movie.

Generally, police officers can arrest anyone when they have probable cause they believe they witnessed someone committing a crime. But, as you stated, the person that took you into custody was not a police officer, but an employee of the theater. General Business Law § 218 allows employees of a “mercantile retail establishment” and a “motion picture theatre” to detain a person “for purposes of investigation or questioning” as to the “unauthorized operation of a recording device” in the movie theatre. Thus the employees of the theater have the same defenses as police officers as long as the employee had “reasonable grounds” to believe that you were operating an unauthorized recording device. The theater cannot be sued for false imprisonment for keeping you in a “reasonable” manner and for a “reasonable” time to investigate if you were operating an unauthorized recording device in the theater.

Although the preceding paragraph is filled with words like  “reasonable” grounds, “reasonable” time, “reasonable” manner, these cases turn on the facts in the case. For example, when you had your phone out and you were texting, was the camera pointed up at the screen or were you holding the camera down near your seat? If you were holding the phone/camera up, were you only pointing it at the screen a few seconds, or were you holding phone/camera up at the screen for minutes? Did you make any furtive gestures while you were texting?

When you unlocked your phone to show theater employees that you were taking no pictures or videos, the entire incident should have come quickly to an end. If the movie theatre continued to detain you after you demonstrated that you were not shooting pictures or videos, then you would have a case for false imprisonment.