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.
I've little doubt Mr. Linscomb was guilty of technically violating some law somewhere on the books in Georgia. But I'm equally confident that nobody goes to jail over $7 unless they're doing it to prove a point - in this case, he didn't believe his girlfriend's de minimus nibblings constituted a second meal. (On that question, I take no position. Quien sabe?)
The incident reminds me of the famous economists' Ultmatum Game, in which a subject is given some amount of money, say $10, to split between themself and another person. Whatever amount of money they give, the other has to take or leave - no negotiating - but if the second person rejects the money, both parties get nothing.
Rational self interest (as defined by economists) would dictate that no matter how low the amount offered by the other party, you maximize your income by taking whatever you're given. But in practice, people interject fairness concerns into their economic judgments, and sure enough many people in the Ultimatum Game refuse payment altogether if they deem the offering so low as to be unfair.
That's what this guy did. He considered what was happening unfair, so he refused to play the game and everybody lost. The incident did the restaurant owner little good, even if they did ultimately extract the $7 from him at the end of the process. Meanwhile, Fulton County taxpayers probably paid somewhere between $200-$300 to book and jail the guy for a couple of days, more if they had to appoint him a lawyer. Nobody really wins and everybody is dissatisfied with the outcome.
Frequently police officers enter an emotional situation and find themselves moderating informally in some dispute between individuals where very little is helped, and the problems are only postponed or aggravated, by taking someone to jail.
Assuming there's not more to the story (no violent behavior, etc.), what would have been a better outcome here? I've heard Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation propose giving police officers more dispute resolution authority out in the field (particularly in juvenile cases), perhaps solving a conflict via an impromptu contract (enforced with the alternative of arrest) instead of taking someone into custody. If I'm not mistaken (though it didn't seem to make it into my notes), Leigh Garrett described similar field-resolution strategies used by police in South Australia.
You hear many departments talk about "community policing," but the term seems to mean something different to nearly everyone who uses it. I'd like to see community policing strategies give officers more dispute resolution authority in the field to resolve cases like this one, if possible without necessarily taking anyone to jail. (You'd need to create procedures and training for dispute resolution functions, since that task's a little different from the job they're trained for now.) Perhaps then some of the truly petty stuff really wouldn't need to rise to the level of criminal prosecution and clog up the courts and the jails just because arrest is the only tool in the officer's toolbox.
BLOGVERSATION: Scott Greenfield's reaction to this case at Simple Justice makes some excellent points, particularly that this should have been considered a civil rather than a criminal dispute. A commenter points to this case law which seems to support that position rather strongly (though it's not from the 5th Circuit.) Greenfield also objects to giving police more dispute resolution power "because their opinion on who is right and wrong is utterly irrelevant. Who cares what some cop thinks?" See more discussion by foodies at Yum Yum Sugar.