By Jordan W. Charness
Sometimes, what seems to be perfectly reasonable and logical from one point of view turns out to be a really bad idea when viewed from someone else’s perspective. In these days of wildly escalating gasoline prices I heard an interesting story about someone who thought that he was doing the right thing but which made no sense at all to the person he was interacting with.
It was one of those magnificent fall days where the temperature soared and it was warm enough to walk around without your coat. My friend, who we’ll call Stephen (not his real name), was in the habit of leaving his wallet in the inside pocket of his coat. He is a respectable professional who would never think of doing anything remotely related to a crime. As you can imagine, leaving your wallet in your coat pocket is not a criminal act, but in this case it almost led to Stephen being arrested and thrown in jail.
Stephen likes a bargain and he is constantly complaining about how the price of a litre of gasoline keeps running up and down, often changing by as much as 15 cents overnight. On this beautiful fall day, Stephen noticed that a self-service gas station was selling gasoline at almost five cents a litre less than his neighbourhood gas station. In a hurry to save a few cents, Stephen quickly pulled into the gas station and began to fill his tank.
Although he only needed about half a tank, the fact that his van holds an astonishing 95 litres of gas meant that he could save almost nine dollars by filling up. Once his tank was fully topped off he went to the attendant’s booth to pay for his purchase. It was at this point that he realized that he did not have his wallet with him because he had left it in his coat pocket. He had left his coat at home earlier that day due to the fine weather.
Stephen was rather embarrassed but explained to the gas station attendant what happened. He volunteered to give him his name, address and phone number and written authorization to either charge his credit card or send him a bill which he would promptly pay. This seemed to him to be a reasonable course of action because he always paid his bills on time and didn’t owe anyone a dime.
The gas station attendant however did not see it in the same way. He told Stephen that if he walked out of the station he would call the police and have him charged with theft. He pointed out that he was responsible to make sure that everyone paid for their gas and if he let Stephen go, he could get into trouble.
Stephen asked if he could make a phone call so that he could at least try to find someone who could bring him some money. Unfortunately his wife was not home and no one else was easily available.
Once again Stephen pleaded with the attendant, even going so far as to offer to leave his watch as a pledge while he went home to get some money. The gas station attendant was adamant about not wanting to become a watch collector and just wanting to be paid.
Finally Stephen pointed out that there was nothing else that he could do since he had no money with him and cannot get in touch with anyone to come and pay for him. He was not all that keen on the gas station attendant’s suggestion that he leave his car behind and walk home to get some money.
He finally convinced the gas station attendant to agree to postpone calling the police for 10 minutes to allow Stephen to go home to get some money and return. As Stephen pointed out, it would not make that much of a difference if the attendant postponed his call particularly since he had Stephen’s license plate number and could easily give a complete description of him since they had spent so much time together.
Stephen raced home, got the money and returned and paid for his gas with about 30 seconds to spare. He was curious as to whether or not he really could have been charged with theft since he had wanted to leave his name and phone number behind.
I told him that stealing gas is a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail or up to a 2000 dollar fine. It does not matter whether you steal five dollars or a hundred dollars worth of gas the penalty could be the same. He could easily be charged with this crime for taking the gas and failing to return.
If he had in fact left his address and name and still not returned to pay for his gas he would still probably be charged. A defence could possibly be raised that he had no criminal intent to steal since he had left his personal data with the attendant. While a smart criminal lawyer may convince the judge that he was innocent of a crime, there are certainly no guarantees that this would succeed.
Since the gas station attendant had no authority to issue credit he really was in no position to allow Stephen to leave without paying his tab. His point of view was also logical as he did not want to get into trouble. As it turns out their compromise did make sense and Stephen certainly did the right thing by returning to pay for his gas.