With gas hitting $4 a gallon, you'd think there'd be a sharp rise here, as elsewhere, in the number of people who peel away from the pump without paying. You'd be wrong.
Only 78 drive-offs have been identified in case reports filed by Madison police officers so far this year, about half as many as during the same period last year, when the total hit 293, according to numbers provided by Madison Police Capt. Carl Gloede.
MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain recently heard about gas being siphoned from vehicles at a Madison business. He says the responding officer thought businesses ought not "fill gas tanks and then let vehicles sit over the weekend when employees are not present."
As for drive-offs, DeSpain says "it is the MPD's position that these really are preventable crimes if service station owners would require all to prepay."
Matt Hauser, president of the Madison-based Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (the name was actually shortened from an earlier version - don't ask), questions whether that's a good idea.
"I don't think our customers are quite ready for that," he says, noting that 40%-50% still pay in cash, down from 60% a few years back. Credit card purchases shave 2%-3% off sellers' already low markup, and requiring all customers to prepay "may convey to people that an area isn't safe."
Hauser reports only "a slight uptick" in drive-offs in recent years. He credits increased awareness by gas station employees, better security to catch offenders, and a 2003 law that threatens driver's license revocation for repeat offenders.
But Hauser admits getting enforcement is difficult, even though his members believe "it's theft and ought to be treated as theft."
In fact, the drive-off law imposes only fines, not incarceration. That's why former Judge Moria Krueger, acting as a disciplinary hearing examiner, recently tossed part of a complaint against Madison police officer Michael Grogan.
Grogan failed to tell his bosses he was accused of driving off without paying for gas. Krueger concluded this did not violate MPD rules, because it was not a crime. "Something...must have inspired our lawmakers to decriminalize the act of taking gas," mused Krueger, who upheld Grogan's termination on other charges (see web post: "Ex-Judge to Cop: You're a Liar!," 1/4/08).
The Dane County Clerk of Courts office tabulates 17 prosecutions under this forfeiture ordinance over the last several years - three in 2005, seven in 2006, six in 2007 and one so far this year.
In only six cases were fines actually paid or "deemed paid" as part of deals. Most of the time, the charges were dismissed or the fines (now $375) imposed but never paid.
With the price of gas these days, who can afford fines?