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I have read conflicting information about police in the United States arresting people for not paying a bill from a retail vendor, like a taxi driver, auto mechanic or restaurant.

On one hand my understanding is that in all states if you owe money to a vendor, then they have to sue you to collect it. It would seem unlikely to me that a vendor's complaint that you did not pay them would constitute the basis for a criminal arrest. For what?

On the other hand I keep reading what are essentially rumors on the internet that the police can and will arrest you if a store keeper or other vendor complains that you have not paid them AFTER THE FACT. For example, I read one case where a guy left an auto mechanic's shop after the mechanic tried to add an unapproved "diagnostic" charge to a bill and later he got a phone call from the police who threatened to arrest him if he did not go back to the shop and pay the mechanic the disputed charge. Allegedly the cop told him, "You have to pay him or I will arrest you. You can sue him later if you want to." I have read similar things where it is claimed if you leave a cab and do not pay, the driver can chase after you and if he can somehow find you, then he can have you arrested.

So, what is the reality here? Does this even happen and what are the laws involved here? I mean I guess if I could get somebody arrested by just saying to the police that they owed me money, there are a lot of people I could get arrested.

UPDATE: I think Frederick's comment is very relevant in that the complex question seems to be whether there is "intent" to defraud, in other words, did the customer set out to obtain the services with no intention of paying in the beginning, or did they later refuse or fail to pay for some reason that had no relation to their original intent. So, there seems to be a psychological aspect to the problem.

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    I assume there's a serious question somewhere in here, but it's not quite clear. As it stands, it seems that the obvious answer is yes, you can be arrested for theft if you steal from a taxi driver, auto mechanic or restaurant.
    – bdb484
    Jun 1, 2023 at 12:51
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    You have heard rumours on the internet that someone who takes stuff from a shop without paying for the stuff may be arrested?
    – Lag
    Jun 1, 2023 at 13:46
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    "I have read conflicting information" This is as it should be. Like most legal questions, the answer is not uniform across all U.S. jurisdictions. The question is basically where the line is between a mere breach of contract and a crime. Not all U.S. states draw that line in the same place.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 1, 2023 at 23:49
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    I think the answers should revolve around the fact that in any jurisdiction I know of, it only becomes criminal in specific cases where the perpetrator has an intent to steal/defraud. Or maybe, in some jurisdictions, when the perpetrator refuses to disclose his personal data, making a lawsuit impossible. I think this is a very good and interesting question. Jun 2, 2023 at 7:57
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    @Cicero It's acceptable on this site for people to answer for other jurisdictions as well. This is seen as preferable to having the same question dozens of times for every different jurisdiction. Jun 2, 2023 at 14:46

2 Answers 2

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Theft of service

In Texas:

[t]heft of service charges can also arise if you agree to make payment in exchange for a service, and then refuse to pay for the service once it’s rendered.

Texas Penal Code Section 31.04:

A person commits theft of service if, with intent to avoid payment for service that the actor knows is provided only for compensation... the actor intentionally or knowingly secures the performance of the service by agreeing to provide compensation and, after the service is rendered, fails to make full payment after receiving notice demanding payment.

For purposes of this section, intent to avoid payment is presumed if any of the following occurs...the actor absconded without paying for the service or expressly refused to pay for the service in circumstances where payment is ordinarily made immediately upon rendering of the service, as in hotels, campgrounds, recreational vehicle parks, restaurants, and comparable establishments;...

Probable cause

Whether you "could get somebody arrested by just saying to the police that they owed me money", read the various Q&As on this site about the probable cause standard for arrest.

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  • If it's a self-service gas station, isn't it just ordinary theft (you took gas, didn't pay for it), like shoplifting?
    – Barmar
    Jun 2, 2023 at 15:07
  • I'm not sure how that relates. In that question the person is being accused of shoplifting before they even left the store, because it seemed like they were trying to conceal merchandise. I'm talking about filling your tank and then driving away without paying. Isn't that theft of gas, not service?
    – Barmar
    Jun 2, 2023 at 15:28
  • Why? The OP asked about a gas station.
    – Barmar
    Jun 2, 2023 at 15:34
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Yes, an arrest is possible

Taking a taxi and telling the driver you will pay, and having already intended not to pay in the beginning but running of is, in , Fraud (Betrug) under §263 StGB. That is a Straftat that can be punished with up to five years of prison. The same is true for taking gas and not paying, which is treated as Tankbetrug.

If the decision to not pay only came up the moment the taxi arrived or the tanking was complete, it is conversion (Unterschlagung) under § 246 StGB, punishable with three years of prison.

As the punishment in both cases is possibly more than one year, this is a Verbrechen (~Felony). If the amount in dispute is below 50 €, then the damaged party has to request prosecution. In case of 50 € or more, merely alerting the police and filing an Anzeige puts the prosecution in motion. And because it is a felony, the police may not just demand the suspect to come to the station, they can also arrest the suspect if there is a risk of flight (and they get a warrant).

Note that because the state of mind is not known to the police investigating, they will assume fraud or conversion based on the evidence and not consider accidentally forgetting to pay. This is because it was the duty of the party receiving the goods or service to ensure they had paid, and if it was an accident they should have discovered that very timely and remedied the situation by paying. Not doing that means they are at least committing conversion.

While it is often very hard for a taxi driver to get the suspect arrested unless they know exactly who they drove and often only a price of below 50 €, gas stations have video evidence of the driver and car as well as the higher value lead to much easier prosecution.

An arrest might also be done for the mere purpose of asserting your identity.

Can arrest be mitigated?

Yes. You can prevent the criminal offence by making clear to the damaged person that you either:

  • promise to pay at a later date, e.g. leaving an item of value to cash out with the needed pay later.
  • have a genuine dispute, and provide the required information to be sued.
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  • Any idea why this is a separate crime ("Tankbetrug") and not just the same as shoplifting? (I know "theft of electricity" is a separate crime because it isn't covered by the literal wording of "theft").
    – gnasher729
    Jun 2, 2023 at 11:38
  • @gnasher729 it is not a separate crime: Tankbetrug is plain Fraud. Just not paying after originally intending to is Unterschlagung.
    – Trish
    Jun 2, 2023 at 11:51
  • This answer could be expanded by adding information about when the case moves away from criminal law and into civil law. If I tell the Taxi driver I'm not paying because of reason x and give them enough information to identify and sue me it isn't fraud but simply a disagreement about contact law which can be taken to civil court.
    – DonQuiKong
    Jun 3, 2023 at 8:56

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