There is no question that gas prices are on the rise. The cost per gallon fluctuates greatly from week to week, whether it is due to conflicts in the Middle East, supply and demand, or even the federal and state government assessing additional excise taxes. For most families, motor vehicle fuel is an appreciable amount of the budget from month to month, and the unpredictable gas prices do not make planning any easier. It has likely crossed everyone’s mind while standing at the gas pump to drive off without paying out of protest of the outrageous prices. However, actually following through on that sinister plan can lead to a criminal conviction that involves fines, license sanctions and possible jail time.
There has been a sharp increase in “drive-offs” from gas stations since 2000 due to the sharp increase in gasoline prices. Many stores have turned to systems where the customer must prepay for the gas inside the store or by credit card at the pump. However, there are still gas stations in rural areas that allow you to pump gas before paying first. But beware, the Michigan Legislature has increased the penalties for those who think they will get away with a free tank of gas.
Stealing motor fuel from a gas station is classified as retail fraud in Michigan. A person is guilty of retail fraud by stealing if the prosecutor can prove all of the following beyond a reasonable doubt:
- That the person took property from the store that was offered for sale.
- That the person moved the property (in this case, by pumping the fuel into a motor vehicle).
- That the person intended to steal the property by permanently taking it from the store without permission.
- That the person did these things inside the store or its immediate vicinity while it was open.
There are three severity levels of retail fraud in Michigan. The level that you are charged with depends on the value of the fuel stolen and the existence of prior retail fraud convictions on your criminal record. The severity level will also determine if you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.
- Third Degree Retail Fraud – If you commit retail fraud where the value of fuel stolen is LESS THAN $200.00, you are guilty of a misdemeanor which carries a maximum penalty of 93 days in jail and/or a fine up to $500.00 or THREE TIMES the value of the fuel stolen, whichever is greater.
- Second Degree Retail Fraud – If you commit retail fraud where the value of fuel stolen is BETWEEN $200.00 BUT LESS THAN $1,000.00 OR THE PERSON HAS A PRIOR CONVICTION FOR THIRD DEGREE RETAIL FRAUD, you are guilty of a misdemeanor which carries a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail and/or a fine up to $2000.00 or THREE TIMES the value of the fuel stolen, whichever is greater.
- First Degree Retail Fraud – If you commit retail fraud where the value of fuel stolen is $1,000.00 OR MORE OR THE PERSON HAS A PRIOR CONVICTION FOR SECOND DEGREE RETAIL FRAUD, you are guilty of a felony which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in state prison and/or a fine up to $10,000.00 or THREE TIMES the value of the fuel stolen, whichever is greater.
Besides the criminal penalties, the Michigan Legislature has authorized merchants to make a written demand to shoplifters for a civil fine equal to 10 times the retail price of the property involved, not less than $50.00 and not more than $200.00. Pursuant to MCL 600.2953, if the merchant makes this demand and it is not complied with, then the merchant can file a civil action to determine responsibility for the return of any unrecovered property and the payment of the civil fine. If the merchant brings this civil action against you and prevails, you will be liable for the value of the judgment, the merchant’s cost in bringing this action and the merchant’s reasonable attorney fees. The merchant may pursue this action even if you are not criminally charged with retail fraud in any Michigan jurisdiction.
In addition to these civil and criminal penalties, the Michigan Legislature has proscribed license sanctions for fuel theft. Pursuant to MCL 750.367c, “[t]he secretary of state shall suspend the operator’s or chauffeur’s license of a person convicted of an offense or attempted offense under this chapter involving the theft of motor vehicle fuel that occurred by pumping the fuel into a motor vehicle…”. The license sanctions for fuel theft are as follows:
- If the person has no prior conviction for an offense described in this subsection within 7 years, for 6 months. MCL 257.319(9)(a).
- If the person has 1 or more convictions for an offense described in this subsection within 7 years, for 1 year. MCL 257.319(9)(b).
There is no hardship waiver or appeal for these license sanctions. If you or a loved is accused of stealing motor vehicle fuel, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner to protect your livelihood and your reputation. When you need strong legal representation, do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.