Penal Code 537 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to use fraud to obtain a good or service from a business without paying for it. A “good or service” can include such things as:
- fuel, and/or
- accommodations at a hotel.
Crimes under this code section are sometimes referred to as “dine and dash” offenses.
Examples of illegal acts under PC 537 include:
- After Miquel finishes an expensive meal at a restaurant, he takes off in his car after telling the waiter he forgot his credit card in the auto.
- Beth convinces a gas station attendant to turn on the pump (because she left her purse in the car), but then quickly leaves the station without paying once her tank is full.
- Andrew uses fraud to convince a hotel to let him stay a few nights, and then checks out without paying.
Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of defrauding an innkeeper. These include showing that a defendant:
- imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
If the value of the good or service obtained was greater than $950, then the violation is charged as a wobbler. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If the latter, the crime can be punished by imprisonment in the California state prison for over a year.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. What is the legal definition of defrauding an innkeeper?
- 2. Are there legal defenses to PC 537 violations?
- 3. Penalties, punishment, and sentencing
- 4. Related laws
1. What is the legal definition of defrauding an innkeeper?
Penal Code 537 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to defraud an innkeeper.
In order to successfully show that a defendant is guilty under this code section, a prosecutor must show three things. These are that the defendant:
- obtained a good or service from a business (e.g., food, lodging, or fuel),
- obtained them without paying for them, and
- intended to defraud the business selling the goods/services.1
In lieu of the above, a prosecutor could try to convict a defendant by showing that:
- he obtained credit at a business providing a good or service (e.g., a hotel or restaurant), and
- he did so by use of false pretenses.2
Please note that “defraud” means for a person to practice fraud, or, to use cheating and trickery to gain something of value.
Also note that “false pretenses” is illegally getting money, goods, or merchandise by fraud or misrepresentation.
2. Legal Defenses
A person can try to challenge a PC 537 accusation by raising a legal defense. A legal defense may work to reduce or dismiss a charge.
Three common defenses to Penal Code 537 charges include:
- no intent to defraud;
- mistake; and/or,
2.1. No intent to defraud
Please recall that a person is only guilty under PC 537 if he has acts with an intent to defraud (or via the closely associated act of using false pretenses). This means it is always a valid defense for an accused to show that he did not have this requisite intent.
Mistake is a legal defense in which a defendant asserts he did not do a criminal act on purpose: “It was a mistake.” The defense is successful when a defendant shows that:
- he had no criminal intent to do harm;
- he was not acting negligently; and,
- he was engaged in lawful conduct at the time of the accident.
Duress is a legal defense in which an accused basically says: “He made me do it.” The defense applies to the very limited situation in which a person commits a crime (here, defrauding an innkeeper), because somebody threatened to kill him if the crime was not committed.
3. Penalties, punishment, and sentencing
A violation of Penal Code 537 is punished based upon the value of the services, goods or merchandise taken.
A person that violates PC 537 is charged with a misdemeanor if the value of the service obtained was $950 or less.3 The offense is then punishable by:
- imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
- maximum fine of $1,000.
If the value of the service obtained was greater than $950, then the violation is charged as a wobbler. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If the latter, the crime can be punished by imprisonment in the California state prison for over a year.4
4. Related offenses
There are three laws related to defrauding an innkeeper. These are:
- Shoplifting – PC 495.5;
- Petty theft – PC 484(a); and,
- Grand theft – PC 487.
4.1. Shoplifting – PC 495.5
California law defines "shoplifting" as entering an open business, with the intent to steal merchandise worth $950 or less.5
For most defendants, shoplifting is a misdemeanor under PC 495.5. The potential penalties are:
- up to six months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.6
4.2. Petty theft – PC 484(a)
The majority of petty theft cases arise when someone simply physically takes property that belongs to someone else. This is known as "theft by larceny."
Under PC 484(a), petty theft is a misdemeanor.7
The maximum penalties for most petty theft convictions are:
- a fine of up to $1,000, and/or
- up to six months in county jail.8
4.3. Grand theft – PC 487
This section defines grand theft as the unlawful taking of someone else's property, when the property is valued at $950.00 or more.9
In most cases, the offense of grand theft per PC 487 is a wobbler. This means that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.10
The maximum potential sentence for misdemeanor grand theft is up to one year in county jail.
For felony grand theft, a defendant can be sentenced to:
- 16 months,
- two years, or
- three years of incarceration.11
Were you accused of defrauding an innkeeper in California? Call us for help…
If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, per Penal Code 537 PC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.
California Penal Code 537(a) PC. This code section states: “Any person who obtains any food, fuel, services, or accommodations at a hotel, inn, restaurant, boardinghouse, lodginghouse, apartment house, bungalow court, motel, marina, marine facility, autocamp, ski area, or public or private campground, without paying therefor, with intent to defraud the proprietor or manager thereof, or who obtains credit at an hotel, inn, restaurant, boardinghouse, lodginghouse, apartment house, bungalow court, motel, marina, marine facility, autocamp, or public or private campground by the use of any false pretense, or who, after obtaining credit, food, fuel, services, or accommodations, at an hotel, inn, restaurant, boardinghouse, lodginghouse, apartment house, bungalow court, motel, marina, marine facility, autocamp, or public or private campground, absconds, or surreptitiously, or by force, menace, or threats, removes any part of his or her baggage therefrom with the intent not to pay for his or her food or accommodations is guilty of a public offense…”
California Penal Code 537(a)(1) PC.
California Penal Code 537(a)(2) PC.
California Penal Code 459.5 PC.
California Penal Code 490 PC.
California Penal Code 484 PC. See also Penal Code 487 PC.
California Penal Code 489 PC.