ANNAPOLIS – Steal gas, risk losing your driver’s license.
That’s what state lawmakers want under a bill passed by the House of Delegates Tuesday, and with the Senate already in support, the measure now heads to Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s desk for final approval.
The bill would give judges the option of suspending pilferers’ licenses on a first offense. On a second offense, the 30-day suspension would be mandatory. Gas thieves already face as much as a $500 fine on the first offense, plus possible jail time.
Supporters say it’s “tough-on-crime” legislation. But opponents say the punishment doesn’t fit the offense, and that government shouldn’t legislate “common sense.”
According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, gasoline theft cost retailers $272 million nationwide in 2000, or nearly $3,000 per store that sold fuel. But that number dropped to just over $1,000 in 2001. The association represents 1,699 stores in Maryland.
Pennsylvania was the most recent state to enact “drive-off” legislation. There, a judge may suspend a license for up to 30 days upon a third offense.
North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and Kansas also allow license suspensions, though criteria differ from state to state.
Until recently, male teenagers were the principal demographic responsible for drive-offs. Soaring gas prices over the past five years have meant an equal mix of all groups have started tapping the pump for free.
“This legislation has been enacted in other states, and it’s been a deterrent,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, one of the bill’s co- sponsors. “There is nothing teens value more than a driver’s license, and if there’s the possibility they’ll lose it for stealing gas, it’ll make them think twice.”
Not everyone is convinced. Bill opponents point to laws already in place that punish gasoline theft.
“This isn’t a law enforcement tool at all,” said Delegate Nathaniel Oaks, D-Baltimore, one of a handful of Democrats who voted against the bill. “It’s not speeding or going through a red light and getting caught on camera . . . This is an isolated problem. It’s making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Instead, critics say, police agencies should step up enforcement.
Rules mean little to thieves if no one is there to rein them in.
“If someone is going to steal gas in the first place, they don’t care about laws, and they’d drive without a license anyway,” said Delegate Robert Costa, R-Anne Arundel. “The best way to protect any citizen is through prevention. Most gas stations have pay-before-you-pump (technology.)”
But paying first also hurts business, said NACS spokesman Jeff Lenard. If drivers pay first, they tend to spend less on gas, and when using credit cards at the pump, they don’t go inside to make other purchases.
“If you require pre-pay, and the guy down the street doesn’t, it’s quite likely the customer will go down the street,” Lenard said. “Multiple options are always more convenient to the consumer.”
An Ehrlich spokesman said the governor would likely make a decision on the bill by June.