A new and unnecessary law takes effect in West Virginia this week.
The law targets gasoline drive-offs. It says that anyone who puts gas in his car and drives off without paying can be sentenced to up to a year in prison, fined $2,500 or both. Anyone who does the same thing a second time can also lose his driver's license for up to a year.
The West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association prodded the Legislature to pass the law this year. The law serves the interests of the association's members, but no one else's.
First, most gas drive-offs are the result of absent-mindedness, not criminal intent. Perhaps they're in a hurry, perhaps they're preoccupied -- whatever the reason, most customers who drive off with gas just forget to pay. They didn't intend to steal, they just forgot to pay. Those are two very different things. If absent-mindedness is a crime, we're all lawbreakers.
Second, police have better things to do than chase down and charge drivers who's only crime is being absent-minded. No, we don't have the statistics to back it up, but we'd bet most gas drive-offs, since they're accidental, end with embarrassed drivers returning to pay what they owe. Isn't that a better resolution than putting more strain on our already understaffed police departments, overburdened courts and overcrowded jails and prisons?
Oil Marketers and Grocers Association Executive Director Janet Vineyard say the new law is aimed only at real thieves, such as those who pump gas, drop the nozzle so the sale won't register with the cashier, then take off. "We're not after the woman with 15 kids in the station wagon who just forgets," Vineyard says. Is that so? Does the association's new law allow for "the woman with 15 kids in the station wagon?" Or will she be prosecuted just like the confirmed criminal? If so, look for justice's slow pace to slow even more.
Are we arguing against punishing lawbreakers? No, we're arguing against writing new laws to satisfy every special-interest group. Anyone truly guilty of stealing gasoline could have been prosecuted under previous state law. There was no need to add one just to please the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association. But lawmakers listen to special interests, forget about their constituents, and government grows bigger.