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The crime of defrauding an innkeeper involves obtaining goods or services from a business without paying for them. This can include “dining and dashing” from a restaurant, or failing to pay after you stay at a hotel or you fill up your tank at a gas station.
Depending on the state and the value of the goods or services taken, it can be either
The crime of defrauding an innkeeper is usually defined as willfully using fraud to take the goods or services of a business without paying for them. While the elements of the crime are generally the same, different states have criminal statutes that may have different details. Those details may change:
Getting a case evaluation and establishing an attorney-client relationship with a criminal defense lawyer is the best way to understand the severity of the charges you are facing.
An “innkeeper” is not strictly limited to hotel proprietors. However, each state includes different kinds of businesses in its criminal statute for defrauding an innkeeper.
For example, Virginia’s law only covers a:
California’s law, on the other hand, is broader. It covers a:
In most cases, these differences in state law will not affect a particular case. However, there are exceptions. For example, Virginia’s law prohibits gaining entry to an amusement park. California’s law does not. That is not to say that it is legal to use fraud to get into a California amusement park for free, though. It just would not be considered defrauding an innkeeper. It is still likely to be prohibited by other laws, such as trespassing.
Different state statutes may also disagree on which services or goods are covered by their law against defrauding an innkeeper.
California’s law, for example, forbids using fraud to obtain:
Washington’s law against defrauding innkeepers covers the following goods and services:
Virginia’s law, meanwhile, explicitly mentions entertainment as a service that can be taken by fraud.5
Some state statutes, like California’s and Washington’s, explicitly state that leaving a business or absconding without paying is prima facie evidence of an intent to defraud. This puts the onus on the defendant to show that it was a mistake or to raise a different defense.
In other states, it is up to the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had the intent to defraud the proprietor.
In many states, the penalties of a conviction will depend on the value of the loss. That amount is known as a threshold amount. In some of these states, the threshold amount will determine whether the offense is a misdemeanor or a felony.
In California, for example, the threshold amount is $950. If the value of the goods or services was less than this amount, it is a misdemeanor.6 Defrauding more than this amount is a wobbler offense.7 Prosecutors can pursue wobblers as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
By comparison, the law in Washington is very harsh. There, the threshold amount is only $75. Defrauding an innkeeper of less than that amount is a gross misdemeanor.8 Defrauding more than that amount is a felony.9 In Virginia, the amount also draws a line between a felony and a misdemeanor. However, the threshold amount is one-thousand dollars.10
Not all states do this, though. Some states treat all cases as the same classification of crime. Michigan is an example. In Michigan, all charges of defrauding an innkeeper are misdemeanors, no matter the value of the theft.11
The class of crime depends on the state. However, defrauding an innkeeper is generally a misdemeanor. It can be a low-level felony, if the amount taken is high.
Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that carry up to 1 year in jail. Felonies are defined as criminal offenses that can carry more than 1 year in prison.
California’s sentencing range is a good example of a conviction for defrauding an innkeeper.
If charged as a misdemeanor, a conviction can carry:
If the amount taken was over the threshold amount and prosecutors pursue felony charges, a conviction can carry:
The best way to avoid these penalties is to talk to a criminal defense attorney from a reputable law firm.
People who have been accused of defrauding an innkeeper can make use of the following common defenses:
Both mistake and lack of intent focus on the behavior of the defendant. They both argue that the defendant did not intend to defraud the proprietor. Because the crime of defrauding an innkeeper requires the specific intent to defraud someone, these defenses can be persuasive.
For example: Paul is a college student. He spends all day at his favorite coffee shop doing schoolwork. Distracted by his work and taking a phone call, he leaves and forgets to use his credit card on his way out, an honest mistake.
In states where absconding without paying is prima facie evidence of an intent to defraud, like California, it can be up to the defendant to overcome that evidence of intent.
Duress is a defense that focuses on someone else’s behavior to force the defendant to act. If the other person adequately threatens the defendant to commit the crime of defrauding an innkeeper, the defendant may not be liable.
Laws that prohibit defrauding an innkeeper exist to provide specific protections to businesses.
The type of conduct covered by statutes against defrauding an innkeeper is already covered by more general criminal statutes and theft charges, like:
By enacting a law that specifically deals with certain businesses, like restaurants, gas stations, and hotels, state legislatures create special rules for these cases. Laws that deal with the crime, in general, are supplanted by these specific rules. This allows states to regulate or punish certain types of conduct with more precision.12 For defrauding an innkeeper, this can be to provide these types of businesses more protection from fraud by, for example, implying intent from absconding.
In this way, defrauding an innkeeper is similar to laws against shoplifting. Both prohibit conduct that would already be covered by laws against theft offenses, in general. However, both shoplifting and “defrauding an innkeeper” laws cover a more specific scenario. This allows for the law to be more precise.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.
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