Good writing about social issues helps you understand them clearly. Great writing about social issues shows them to you in a whole new way. Really great writing shows you important social issues where you never noticed them before.
Scott Greenfield had a really great post about a guy who didn’t pay all of his restaurant bill. Here are the facts, according to the Atlanta Hournal-Constitution:
Fulton County authorities arrested 40-year-old Dan Linscomb of Texas City, Texas, last week for refusing to pay his tab at the all-you-can-eat Iron Skillet buffet in northwest Atlanta. Officials say Linscomb ate at the buffet and let his girlfriend eat from his plate.
The restaurant charged him for two $7 meals, which he refused to pay. Linscomb was taken to the Fulton County Jail on a charge of theft of service. Fulton County Sheriff’s Sgt. Nikita Hightower said Linscomb was released two days later after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct.
Sounds okay, doesn’t it? Scott has a problem with it, however, and I find his explanation of it fascinating:
Why do police become embroiled in matters that are purely civil in nature, and why, when they do, do they invariably side with the business over the individual?
While one might question whether Linscomb’s refusal to pay the tab for his girlfriend’s eating off his plate was tantamount to theft, it is not. It is a civil question of whether the girlfriend’s nibbling constituted an obligation to pay an additional $7. A contract question, and nothing more. Contract questions are resolved by courts in their civil capacity everyday, and the parties involved always believe they’re getting the shaft rather than a bona fide dispute exists.
But when the problem arises between a business, like the Iron Skillet, and one of its patrons, Linscomb, the cops are inevitably called to the scene. Why? Because there is an inherent bias by the police to protect their local businesses from disagreements with patrons.
I never thought of that.
I had a client a few years ago who I billed for a lot of money. He disputed my bill, but he sent me a check for the amount he thought he owed. Could I have gone to the police and had him arrested for theft? Presumably not. So how come I was on my own over a $20,000 consulting bill, but a restaurant can get someone arrested over a $7 tab?
For that matter, why couldn’t Linscomb swear out a fraudulent business practices complaint against the restaurant for false billing? Isn’t that only fair?
I suspect the answer is in the law. Somewhere there is a paragraph in a statute (or in case law) that explicitly criminalizes this man’s behavior in a restaurant. One of Scott’s commenters even points out the section of New York law that does it there. [Update: Scott says the commenter missed by a mile. The facts are all wrong.]
But that only raises the question, “Why?” Why is the law written that way? Why is the state willing to let these private businesses use the justice system as a collection agency?
I’m not saying Scott’s post is right, but I never really noticed this strange discrepancy in the law before, and that’s why Scott’s post is interesting.