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Can I go to jail if I “Dine and Dash” in California?
If you walk out of a California restaurant or bar without paying your bill – “dine and dash” as it is often called – you are committing a crime and could land in jail.
California has a specific criminal statute that deals with “dine and dash” situations, though it does not refer to it as such and has a rather misleading name. Sometimes referred to as the “Defrauding an Innkeeper” law, California Penal Code Section 537 PC may sound like it only applies to hotels and motels, but is in fact much broader.
Under Section 537(a), it is a California criminal offense to:
“obtain any food, fuel, services, or accommodations at a hotel, inn, restaurant, boardinghouse, lodging house, apartment house, bungalow court, motel, marina, marine facility, auto camp, ski area, or public or private campground, without paying therefor, with intent to defraud the proprietor or manager thereof”
In order for leaving without paying to be a crime, it must have been done “with the intent to defraud.”
Evidence that you left the premises of the restaurant or other establishment set forth in the statute without paying or offering to pay for your food or beverages will be taken as prima facie evidence of your “intent to defraud.” Penal Code Section 537(c).
The penalties upon conviction for a violation of Section 537 depend on the size of the tab:
If the value of the credit, food and beverages is $950 or less, you could be fined up to $1,000 and/or sentenced to up to six months in county jail.
If the value of the credit, food and beverages is greater than $950, you could be sentenced to one to three years in county jail.
But not all cases are cut and dry. A good criminal defense lawyer may be able to help you get the charges reduced or dismissed.
About the Author
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.