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What is “Theft of Services,” and How is it Handled in Pennsylvania and New Jersey?


12/2/2019

You’ve hired a contractor to perform home maintenance, but you’re dissatisfied with the final result. The paint is streaked, siding uneven, and overall workmanship sub-par. You refuse to pay until these defects are corrected, but is this legal? Most Pennsylvania and New Jersey citizens have encountered a similar dilemma. Whether it’s unfinished snow and ice removal during the Northeast’s harsh winters, dissatisfaction with a medical provider’s care, or poor food quality at a restaurant, even the justified refusal to pay service providers may result in criminal charges for “theft of services.”

Attorney Lauren Wimmer of Wimmer Criminal Defense Law understands how serious theft of service allegations are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is committed to defending her clients’ rights. Call our office today to schedule a free case evaluation with an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer.

Defining “Theft of Services” in Pennsylvania

Theft of services is defined as intentionally obtaining compensable services through deceptive means without properly compensating the provider. A pre-planned “dine and dash” is an example of theft of services in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Pennsylvania Criminal Code § 3926 criminalizes the following types of service theft:

  • Intentional acquisition of compensable services by deception, threat, false token, trick, alteration of public utility lines or meters, attachment of an unauthorized device to public/private cable-related service, or any other artifice designed to avoid payment for the service.
  • Diversion of services under the offender’s control to the benefit of oneself or another
  • Permitting another’s interference with a public utility meter within your control and deriving an unpaid benefit therefrom
  • Selling a device or educational guide designed to assist others in illegally acquiring or diverting services (for example, a DYI cable theft kit or guidebook)

Pennsylvania’s theft of services statute covers the theft of both private and public services. Such “services” include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Professional services – medical or legal
  • Labor – cleaning, landscaping, construction
  • Hotel accommodations
  • Transportation services
  • Entertainment – sneaking into a movie
  • Restaurant services – skipping out on paying for dinner
  • Utility services including cable, telephone, cellphone, internet, gas, water, steam, or electricity

The theft must be accompanied by criminal intent, i.e., with a conscious intent not to pay the full amount due. For example, paying for dinner with a credit card and then claiming the charge was fraudulent, knowingly writing a bad check, intentionally connecting to a utility without a payment contract, blackmailing someone into performing a service without pay, paying with false currency or the wrong denomination, or simply refusing to pay for a service without just cause.

In Pennsylvania, refusing to pay for services ordinary paid for immediately after the service is rendered gives rise to the presumption of deception under § 3926. The defendant must prove he or she did not intend to steal these services rather than the prosecution having to prove his criminal intent. However, the defendant must actually refuse to pay or leave without making payment. Making an offer to pay, such as setting up a payment schedule or agreeing to wash dishes after a meal, which is refused may protect an offender from criminal liability under § 3926 but not civil.

Defining “Theft of Services” in New Jersey

In New Jersey, a person is guilty of theft if he purposely obtains services which he knows are available only for compensation, by deception or threat, or by false token, slug, or other means, including but not limited to mechanical or electronic devices or through fraudulent statements, to avoid payment for the service. Services in New Jersey include the same services covered by Pennsylvania’s statute in addition to the fraudulent use of vehicles, bikes, or other movable property without compensation, i.e., refusing to pay for a rental car after use. New Jersey also has the same presumption of deception when services traditionally paid for immediately upon rendering are uncompensated without payment or offer.

New Jersey prosecutors must prove the following four elements to sustain a theft of services conviction:

  • The defendant purposefully, i.e., intentionally, obtained or diverted the services for herself or another
  • The defendant actually knew the services obtained were traditionally only available for compensation
  • The defendant obtained the services through unlawful means such as fraud, trick, deception, or threat
  • The defendant’s purpose/intent was to avoid paying for all or part of the services

The mens rea (the subjective criminal intent) necessary for theft of service prosecutions protects unintentional offenders from criminal prosecution; although, they may be subject to civil penalties. For example, leaving a hotel believing you prepaid for the services or leaving dinner with a good faith belief your gift card covered the full bill likely isn’t criminal. In such circumstances, the services were not obtained frequently or deceptively. Disproving the mens rea associated with a theft of services charge in Pennsylvania or New Jersey is often a strong defense to service theft charges.

Penalties for Theft of Services in Pennsylvania and New Jersey

While theft of services is a unique offense in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it is still theft. Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania punish theft of service in accordance with the penalties for general larceny. In other words, the criminal level of the offense depends on the market value of the services stolen. Theft of services is a felony in the second degree in Pennsylvania if the market value of the services is greater than $2,000 but less than $100,000. Theft of services less than $50 are summary offenses, while theft of services falling between $1,999 and $51 are misdemeanors in the first, second, or third degree. This assumes the services were not taken by threat, breach of a fiduciary obligation, or while taking advantage of a natural disaster, which will increase the applicable penalties. New Jersey has similarly tiered penalties and may charge offenders with a lesser disorderly persons offense for theft of services valued under $200.

Those convicted of theft of services in Pennsylvania or New Jersey must make restitution, i.e., repay the victim, for the services and may face additional fees and fines. In New Jersey, offenders must repay the victim for the uncompensated services and pay the victim’s attorney’s fees, if any, and investigation expenses in addition to a minimum $500 fine for each offense.

Call Us Today to Schedule a Free Case Evaluation with a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Philadelphia

Attorney Lauren Wimmer is committed to zealously defending New Jersey and Pennsylvania citizens accursed of theft of services. To schedule a free case evaluation with a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney, call our office today at 215-712-1212 or contact us online.