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    Minnesota Gas Thieves Can Hit the Road

    Drive-offs will result in suspension of drivers' licenses.

    ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Beginning Aug. 1, Minnesota will suspend for 30 days the driver's license of anyone convicted of fueling and fleeing, reported the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It's a measure designed to curb gas thefts, which rob the average Minnesota station of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars per year.

    The measure comes just after a springtime drive-off blitz that saw incidence of the crime rise by 30 percent statewide.

    The suspension, which would come on top of the usual misdemeanor criminal penalties, won't make the tough job of prosecuting gas thefts any easier. But advocates say it will be more effective than the minor fines being meted out.

    ``It's not a fantasy bill, but hopefully it will deter a significant number of people,'' said state Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minneapolis Democrat who wrote the legislation that became part of an omnibus crime bill signed into law June 2.

    Minnesota's 3,200 stations lose about $2.4 million per year -- or about $750 each -- to drive-offs, according to information provided by the Minnesota Service Station Association.

    National industry officials say, however, that urban stations lose much more than rural ones, and that nationwide the average amount lost last year was $2,141 per store.

    Take Ted Brausen, owner of three Shell stations in Shoreview, Arden Hills and Roseville. Last year he wrote off $4,000 to drive-offs.

    But he said safety is an even bigger issue. Some thieves simply drop the nozzle -- still running -- and race off, he said, leaving a gas puddle that could go up in flames.

    Gas prices peaked this spring at about $2.25 a gallon, prompting the spike in drive-offs, said Lance Klatt, executive director of the state station association.

    ``As the price of gasoline goes up, so does theft,'' Klatt told the paper.

    Prices and thefts have tapered off in the last few weeks, he said, but with future increases likely, “you could really see [the theft rate] coming back up again.''

    Why not just make customers pay before pumping, as is often done in other states and large cities?

    Minnesota industry officials say their customers hate the inconvenience and may never make a trip into a station's convenience store. In a business where owners supposedly make only a penny or two in profit per gallon of gas -- and much more on a candy bar or soda -- that solution won't really help, they say.

    The new law is not the first time that the Minnesota Legislature has tried to solve the drive-off problem. In 2001, it passed a law that enabled pump owners to go after nonpayers through civil court -- an easier alternative to criminal prosecution.

    That's because even though gas theft is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, it's difficult to catch thieves and prosecute them. Considering the hassle and relatively low amount stolen per theft, police tend to consider drive-offs a low priority.

    ``They're very difficult to deal with,'' said Oakdale Police Capt. William Hutton.

    And thieves know they'll rarely get pounded when they're caught. Klatt said first-time offenders usually pay a $30 fine plus the cost of the gas.

    Ellison said he proposed the bill after seeing one ``cavalier'' offender pop up time and again in court.

    ``He did it way more times than he got caught,'' Ellison said. ``He thought it was funny.''

    Losing a driver's license for a month, however, is going to get thieves' attention by putting “a crimp in their style,'' Ellison said. And they'll get fair warning once stations put up decals notifying them of the penalty.

    Jason Nodean, manager of Kellie's Corner on Oakdale's Geneva Avenue, thinks it's a good idea. His deadbeats tend to be in their 20s and “get slapped on the wrist'' whenever they're caught -- but ``they'd be afraid of losing their license,'' he said.

    In 1998, Georgia became the first state to suspend licenses in drive-off cases, and now more than half the nation -- including Wisconsin -- does so. Industry representatives in Georgia and Wisconsin say their anecdotal reports indicate it has helped reduce the crime, though they could not provide statistics.



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