New Hope police: gas drive-offs a civil matter now

New Hope has seen 62 gasoline drive-off thefts from local stations so far this year. There is a change, however, in how future cases will be handled by the New Hope Police Department.

According to a Nov. 8 letter mailed to the eight gas stations in the city, the department will no longer pursue gasoline drive-off thefts as a criminal matter, instead leaving it for the owners to pursue as “a civil matter.”

The Minnesota State Legislature recently passed a law (“Civil Liability for Receiving Motor Fuel Without Paying,” Statute 604.12) allowing for the civil penalty. The new law allows for stations to require vehicle owners who did not pay for fuel to pay for the stolen amount, plus a $30 service charge, within 30 days.

If the fuel hasn’t been paid for within 30 days after the retailer has mailed the notice to the owner, an additional civil penalty will be added. The retailer may also be entitled to interest from the date of non-payment, and up to $500 in attorney’s fees, the law reads

Cited vehicle owners can dispute the charges within 30 days of the alleged theft through written notice to the retailer. In that case, the retailer collects “only pursuant to a judgment rendered by a county of competent jurisdiction.”

New Hope, according to police Capt. Scott Slawson, is one of the last cities in the area to adopt a policy limiting police response to gas drive-offs. Plymouth passed a similar policy in 2011, Crystal in 2010 and Golden Valley in 2000, he said.

New Hope officers used to spend at least an hour investigating each drive-off. The process included checking the area, taking a report and researching who was connected to the vehicle. Another hour could be spent trying to figure out who owned the vehicle and where that person was.

Not doing having to do that anymore save the department staff hours equivalent to putting another full-time officer on the street for six weeks.

Slawson said the new law will give station owners more options, too.

“The larger benefit is for station operators who can now seek compensation for the loss, rather than a criminal investigation that typically results in a fine, if guilty, and the station receiving nothing in compensation,” Slawson said. “In a criminal investigation, we must prove who was driving in order to charge anyone. In a civil case, the burden of proof is much lower, and the owner is legally responsible, which streamlines the process.”

The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing says that stores not requiring pre-payment for fuel lost an average of $1,440 in 2010, up from $761 in 2009. The organization also says increase in gas thefts was due to increases in price, as opposed to high prices. It doesn’t take much to hit the station owner in the pocket book.

“With retailers making a few cents profit on the sale of gasoline, a retailer needs to sell thousands of additional gallons of gasoline just to make up for the loss,” the organization says on its website, “Oftentimes, it only takes one $50 theft a day to significantly erode – or wipe out – a retailer’s daily gasoline profits.”

New Hope Police Chief Tim Fournier says that making customer pay at the pump is the best way to stop drive-offs. There are only two gas stations in New Hope which do not require pre-pay (Holiday Stations on 9456 Medicine Lake Road and 7180 42nd Ave. N.) These two stations account for all of the drive-off calls, he said. Calls to Holiday’s media representative were not immediately returned.

Gas station owners can still call 911 to report a drive off, the letter says, but there will be no follow-up police investigation unless another crime occurred in association with the drive off.