Motorists who repeatedly steal petrol by filling up and then claiming to have forgotten a means of payment will no longer be able to escape criminal prosecution, after new guidance was issued to police forces.
Garage owners have reported a massive increase in the number of people putting fuel in their vehicles and then telling cashiers they have no means of payment. When this happens, the usual course of action is for motorists to complete a form with their details and to sign to confirm they will re-attend to pay, generally within a period of 7 days. However, if a driver fails to return and settle the bill, the Police have few powers to bring criminal charges and the garages are instead advised to pursue them through the civil courts.
Brian Madderson of the Petrol Retailers’ Association, welcomed the move. He said:
“We have seen a significant rise in the number of these cases but the retailers have only been able to pursue offenders through the civil courts. In many cases, it would just not be worth it to recover a tank of fuel worth £70 or £80.
“We have seen cases where some motorists will do the same thing at 10 garages in a region, so hopefully this change will help stop that happening.”
The Crown Prosecution Service has now issued new legal guidelines advising that criminal prosecutions should be brought against repeat offenders.
At present, if the motorist admitted that they did not have the means to pay at the time but confirmed they would pay for the fuel at a later date, then it would be extremely difficult to prove any offence. In England and Wales, this offence is created by section 3 of the Theft Act 1978, which provides:
‘(1) Subject to subsection (3) below, a person who, knowing that payment on the spot for any goods supplied or service done is required or expected from him, dishonestly makes off without having paid as required or expected and with intent to avoid payment of the amount due shall be guilty of an offence.’
Accordingly, in order for the prosecution to prove an offence of making off without payment, they need to show a dishonest intent at the time of the offence. Even if the driver could be traced at a later date, prosecutors would be unable to bring charges because it is difficult to prove dishonesty retrospectively.
The new guidelines now recommend that prosecutions be brought where a motorist can be shown to have repeatedly filled up without having any means of payment. For those who leave false details at the petrol station, it is also suggested that they should be prosecuted. Prosecutors have indicated the change in policy is designed to pursue those who repeatedly fail to pay as opposed to those who have simply forgotten their method of payment.
Manjula Nayee, Senior Policy Advisor at the CPS, said:
“If an individual has made a genuine error in filling up with fuel without having the means to pay, it is standard industry practice to allow drivers to sign a form to acknowledge their debt and agree to pay it back.
“But unfortunately there are a number of dishonest individuals who repeatedly abuse this system, signing forms at different petrol stations and never paying what they owe.”
Police will now be expected to prosecute repeat offenders with the offence of theft or fraud, using CCTV footage, number plate records and fingerprint evidence.