Appleton Police Stop Responding to Driveoffs

Department says retailers must follow up themselves due to strained resources
APPLETON, Wis. -- On December 1, the Appleton Police Department (APD) instituted a new procedure affecting operators of the 24 gas stations in the city, reported The Post-Crescent. The APD "will no longer respond to reports of gas driveoffs," letters to the gasoline retailers cited by the newspaper said.

The new rules mean station operators must try to collect their own debts from drivers who pump but do not pay. Police Lieutenant Kelly Gady said the department had to draw the line on driveoffs for practical reasons. The vast majority of fuel driveoffs are not crimes, [image-nocss] she said, noting that most result from credit card-reader snafus or honest mistakes by drivers.

Traditionally, the department responded to fuel driveoff reports generally as requests for assistance, said the paper. Officers would find the nonpaying drivers and inform them of their failure to pay. That was typically enough to send the offenders back to the stations, cash in hand, it added.

The civil process was effective but burdensome for police, said the report, diverting resources from more pressing criminal cases and pubic safety concerns.

"Even if the officers are spending just 15 to 30 minutes on average [per drive-ff report], that's a significant amount of time to be a bill collector," Gady said.

The Appleton department addressed the same driveoff problem in 2007, requiring stations to provide the license plate numbers and descriptions of the driver and vehicle before getting involved, but that failed to eliminate it, the report said.

The new procedure requires station operators to use the plate number to obtain the vehicle registration information from the state Department of Transportation, at a charge of $5 per request. With that information, the station operator must try to recover the loss. If that does not happen, police will pursue the matter as a theft complaint--if there's evidence the driveoff was an intentional act.

Gady says probably 95% of drive-offs do not meet that standard. "Certainly, there have been times when it was an intentional act," Gady said. "We're not saying we are not going to deal with those ones. Those are criminal [matters] and we will follow up with an ordinance citation or a theft charge referral."

The department scheduled meetings with station operators, offering advice on how they can minimize their risk of falling prey to gas thieves. It also offered help with the paperwork in getting license plate registration records from the DOT, the report said.Gady's letter to the owners of the retail gas outlets in Appleton suggests a pre-pay requirement for gasoline purchases, already common in much of the United States, could put an end to their concerns about driveoff losses, said the report.

"There are no other crimes that come to mind with such a simple solution," her letter to station owners said.

The National Association of Convenience Stores' (NACS) most recent national report on gasoline driveoff losses placed them at $115 million in 2007, the report said, less than half of what they were a few years before. Most American gasoline retailers had pre-pay requirements in place by 2007, the study said.

Wisconsin passed a law in 2003 allowing courts to order driver's license suspensions for people convicted of stealing gasoline more than once. Erin Egan, chief of the Citations & Withdrawals section of the Wisconsin Bureau of Driver Services, told the paper that no one has had his or her license suspended for gas theft since the law was passed.

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