Stocks and pillories

August 05, 2004

IMAGINE THE nerve of someone who drives a fancy SUV into a service station, adjusts a pump nozzle to keep fuel flowing until the tank is filled, pops into the food mart for wine, then slips out by a circuitous route to avoid surveillance cameras and drives off without paying for the gas.

If that sort of thing happens often, as Jan Phipps, manager of a Salisbury convenience store, says it has to her, some frustration with current law enforcement policies is inevitable.

Yet Salisbury's return last month to the equivalent of putting offenders in the stocks for public shaming was a barbaric response that shouldn't be repeated.

If fines and jail time seem inadequate, other forms of alternative sentencing might be applied with more constructive results than humiliation.

At Mrs. Phipps' urging and by order of a Wicomico County District Court judge, an 18-year-old woman spent three hours last Friday parading in front of Gordy's Tiger Mart wearing a sandwich board that announced on both sides: "I was caught stealing gas."

As the young woman endured cat calls and honking horns, her expression changed from embarrassment to defiance, according to an account published by the Salisbury Daily Times.

The spectacle invoked images from Colonial times, when punishment was almost always exacted in public as a warning to would-be wrongdoers and often involved confinement in stocks or pillories and a barrage of mockery and abuse.

In this instance, the young woman agreed to this unusual penance in return for Mrs. Phipps' promise to drop charges against her for driving off with $4.52 worth of fuel.

Whether that was a good deal for the young woman depends on what else was on her record. Theft of even a small amount of gasoline carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in jail, a $500 fine and temporary loss of driving privileges. But on a first offense, she likely would have gotten a stern warning, probation before judgment and some hours of community service.

Mrs. Phipps said she prefers the shaming approach because service station operators want to send a very public message that they will not tolerate drive-offs. Her surveillance cameras have caught other thieves in the act, and she's planning to seek the same sandwich-board penance in those cases -- along with whatever other more traditional penalties the court might impose.

But a far more practical approach to the problem would be simply to require motorists to pay for their gasoline before they pump it. That's a solution already used effectively in urban areas that many rural service stations have avoided.

As for a deterrent, Mrs. Phipps reports gasoline thefts at her place have gone down sharply since last February, when she upgraded her surveillance cameras with the kind pros know will get a clear shot of their faces and license plates.

The sandwich board should be retired.

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