Suppose you visit a salon for a new textured haircut and color. The stylist fixes your hair, but you don't like her attitude or the job that she did, so you leave without paying. Sounds reasonable, right? Surely, you are entitled to refuse to pay when the service has been substandard? In fact, what you've actually done is committed a crime. It's called theft of services, and the penalties can be severe in some cases.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Theft of services, like most forms of theft, are punishable based upon the severity of the crime. The more you stole, the higher the punishment, as a misdemeanor can become a felony if the value of stolen services gets into four digits.
What Is Theft of Services?
Theft of services is much like the theft of a physical item, such as a car or a cell phone, because it involves taking things that do not belong to you. But instead of taking something you can touch, the thief is stealing services like a meal, a hotel room or a haircut.
Theft of services is defined by state laws, and these vary by state. Generally though, you could be committing theft of services if you:
- Obtain services by deception, intimidation or threat.
- Intentionally avoid paying someone for services you've already obtained.
- Divert someone else's services, such as cable or Wi-Fi, for your own benefit.
The term "service" is very broad and includes the provision of labor, professional services, public utility services, transportation, restaurant service, lodging, motor vehicle rentals and entertainment services.
Examples of Theft of Services
Since the definition of theft of services is so broad, the easiest way to explain it is to look at a few examples. This is a partial list of the type of activities that could indicate someone has committed the crime of theft of services:
- Skipping out on the bill at a hotel or a restaurant.
- Failing to pay a taxi fare.
- Stealing cable or Wi-Fi from a neighbor.
- Tampering with meter boxes and utility equipment to obtain gas, water or electricity without paying for it.
- Theft of labor, such as not paying for home improvement or gardening projects.
- Failing to pay a mechanic for car repairs.
- Failing to return leased property after the lease is up.
Theft by deception. Theft by deception examples include using someone else's Social Security number to apply for services, such as housing, or misrepresenting yourself on an application form.
Entering a subway without paying.
Not a Victimless Crime
Because you're not depriving someone of a physical item, it can be tempting to think of theft of services as a victimless crime. It isn't. Courts view theft of services crimes seriously since the losses are often passed on to other consumers in the form of higher costs and premiums.
Providers of stolen services can and do press charges if they feel they have been wronged – and the penalties can be heavier than you might think.
Is Theft of Services a Misdemeanor or a Felony?
Theft of services is a crime, but as with many other crimes, whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony depends on the value of the services that were stolen. In Georgia, for example, if the services are valued at less than $500, you will be charged with misdemeanor theft of services; above $500, and you likely will be facing felony charges. Each state has its own financial thresholds, but Georgia is fairly typical by setting the cutoff at $500.
In most states, a judge has the discretion to reduce a felony crime to a misdemeanor, especially if the value of the services stolen is close to the financial threshold. These offenses are colloquially known as "wobblers," meaning they wobble between a felony and a misdemeanor crime depending on the circumstances of the case. Every judge is different; an experienced lawyer can ensure that the service that was taken is valued correctly when deciding whether the offense is punishable as a felony or misdemeanor.
What's the Penalty for Theft of Services?
Penalties are laid down by state laws and depend on whether the case is being tried as a misdemeanor or a felony. In Georgia, for example, a misdemeanor charge of theft of services can carry a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to 12 months. A felony charge of theft of services comes with a prison term between one and 10 years.
Many states operate a sliding scale of misdemeanors with Class A being the most serious and Class E being the least serious. A sliding scale of felonies sets out first-degree felony as the most serious and fifth-degree felony being the least serious. States will have different classifications. Maine, for example, has five categories of crimes: Class A, B and C crimes are felonies, and Class D and E crimes are misdemeanors.
Example of a Sliding Scale Penalty for Theft of Services
The category of crime charged makes a huge difference to the possible penalty. For example, to illustrate how this works, the penalties for theft of services crimes in Texas are classified as:
- Class C misdemeanor if the value of the services stolen is worth $100 or less. The penalty is a fine of up to $500.
- Class B Misdemeanor if the value of the services stolen is between $100 and $750. The penalty is a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail.
- Class A Misdemeanor if the value of the services stolen is between $750 and $2,500. The fine now doubles to $4,000, but the potential jail sentence remains at 180 days.
- State Jail Felony if the value of the services stolen is between $2,500 and $30,000. A state jail felony is punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to two years in a state jail.
- Third-Degree Felony if the value of the services is between $30,000 and $150,000. Now, you're looking at up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
- Second-Degree Felony for stolen services valued between $150,000 and $300,000. The potential prison term rises to 20 years, and you can be hit with a fine of up to $10,000.
- First-Degree Felony is reserved for very high values above $300,000. You're now looking at anything up to life imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
Violence Makes the Crime Worse
Acts of violence committed when stealing services can make things so much worse. Assaulting or physically threatening a hotel owner or a subway worker could result in assault charges being filed against you in addition to the theft crime. Racking up a series of misdemeanors will magnify your case overall, and the penalty is likely to be more severe. In other words, theft of services is not just something that can be brushed off as a minor crime. What's more, in addition to criminal charges, there are other consequences of stealing services.
Other Penalties for Theft of Services
When you agree to purchase services from someone, whether an auto repair or a lawn mowing service, you are entering into a contract with the service provider. This is true even if you do not have a written agreement in place, in most cases. If you take the services but do not pay for them, you are violating, or breaching, the terms of the contract, and the service provider is entitled to bring a civil action against you for damages. Damages in this context would include the value of the stolen services plus associated losses and expenses, such as the cost of bringing the lawsuit against you.
Plus, the standard of proof is lower in the civil courts than it is in the criminal courts. Whereas a criminal prosecutor has to show that you are guilty of the theft beyond a reasonable doubt, in a civil lawsuit the plaintiff only has to show that you are more likely than not – more than 50 percent likely – to be responsible for the theft of services. Thus, it may be easier for the service provider to prove a civil case against you than it would be for a prosecutor to prevail against you in criminal proceedings.
Another indirect penalty to consider is the stigma of having a felony charge on your record. This can make it difficult to get a job or services such as a rental accommodation for many years after the conviction.
Defenses to a Theft of Services Charge: Lack of Intent
It's easy for innocent people to be charged with theft of services if they forget to pay for a meal, for example, or don't realize they need to pay for the service in the first place. For instance, if you misread the payment terms on a subscription plan and missed a payment, then you potentially could be charged with this crime.
If you wind up in court, it's possible to argue lack of intent as a way to defend your case. To prove the crime of theft of services, the prosecutor must show that you intended to obtain the services without paying for them. If you can show that you made a genuine mistake, it might serve as a defense to the charges.
Other Defenses to Theft of Services Charges
Besides lack of intent and sometimes to support it, other possible defenses include:
- You actually paid for the services so you are innocent.
- You gave a post-dated check, and the service provider cashed it before the effective date.
- You offered to stop at a bank to get cash to pay the cab driver, but the driver refused.
- The service provider's card reader wasn't working so it's the service provider's fault you could not pay.
- You were legally entitled to the service, for example, it was your own water service you were using, but there was a mix-up with your name and billing information.
- You were forced to commit the theft under threat of harm, a defense known as coercion. For example, someone grabbed your wife and threatened to hurt her unless you signed a fraudulent application form.
This list is not exhaustive. Like any criminal charge, if you can show that you were not at fault, you can attempt to defend the case. You'll need some evidence to support your theft of services defense. This can include proof that you paid the bill, such as receipts, witness statements, photographs and closed-circuit TV footage.
Some arguments will not wash with a judge, no matter how truthful they are. For example, a thief may think he is harming no one by diverting services, such as electricity or water, from an empty property. But even if the place is empty and it does not appear that anyone has lived there for a really long time, using services that don't belong to you without authorization is still a crime.