Monday, February 26, 2001

Bill punishes fuel thieves

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        BUCKNER, Ky. — Gas station owners call them “drive-offs” — people who fill 'er up, then zoom away without paying.

        Those who get caught usually lose little beyond the cost of their ill-gotten gasoline.

        Taking them to court is costly, in time and money, for business owners. But bills in the General Assembly might help.

        A bill by Rep. Tim Feeley, which the House passed last week, would allow suspension of a driver's license up to six months upon a second or subsequent conviction for misdemeanor theft at the gas pump. What is more important, perhaps, is that gas retailers could post warnings to that effect on their pumps.

        “Most people would think twice and probably not chance it,” said Larry Meadows, a gas and food mart owner who inspired the legislation. “That was the whole intent.”

        Mr. Meadows, owner of Sav-A-Step stations, lost hundreds of dollars to drive- offs each month, especially when gas prices were soaring. “People just decided they weren't going to pay it,” Mr. Meadows said. “I guess they thought they were going to get back at the gas companies.”

        Mr. Meadows said his distributor gets paid in full. When someone steals, “I eat every bit of it myself.”

        Mr. Feeley, R-Crestwood, introduced his bill last month.

        The bill originally would have allowed a license suspension for a first conviction of misdemeanor gas thievery. To the disappointment of dealers, the House Judiciary Committee watered it down.

        Ed Brewer, general manager of a Flying J truck stop in Shelby County, said deferring suspension until a second offense probably is pointless. “We catch quite a few of our drive-offs,” he said. “But I've never caught the same person twice.”

        A bill passed by the Senate on Friday may be more to his liking. It would require denial or suspension of a license for a first offense, though for no more than three months. The bill is by Sen. Ernie Harris, a Republican who also is from Crestwood.

        Mr. Brewer, who said the Flying J loses about $10,000 a year to drive-offs, makes it a practice to prosecute every case possible, which amounts to about a case a week. But the only value of a prosecution is its deterrent effect. “It's not really worth it unless the local newspaper puts it in the paper,” he said.


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