Friday, October 31, 2008

Jailed on Principle: Officers need authority for dispute resolution in field

A Texas man went to jail on principle in Georgia this week, but it wasn't some latter-day civil rights protest:
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.


Anonymous said...

In Galveston people go to jail for less than $7.00 all the time. It's a pre-civil rights era system and very scary.

FleaStiff said...

Cops in such a situation of a merchant's high-emotions over a paltry but legally-sustainable slight often make an arrest, drive the person several blocks away, offer him a false arrest form and tell him that its just not worth my time to go to court over this.

Tempers have cooled, the guy realizes that handcuffs really are not comfortable and the situation is defused without headlines that make the Chamber of Commerce cringe.

Anonymous said...

Two questions;
1) Why was the subject arrested and booked instead of being cited and released?
2) What happened when the subject appeared before a magistrate? The magistrate could have dismissed the charge or released the subject on recognizance.

This story does not appear to be complete.

Anonymous said...

This was a civil dispute. There was no probable cause, and could be none, because police can only lawfully arrest for a crime. See .

The proper remedy was small claims court, not criminal court.

Anonymous said...

If he paid for his meal, then he didn't steal it. If no second meal was served, then there was no theft. The cop should have arrested whoever called the police on a charge of extortion.

Unknown said...

He paid for one buffet meal; two people ate. One buffet order, especially an "all-you-can-eat" buffet, is for one person only; if two people eat, you pay for two.

Anonymous said...

Have any of your communities enacted an ordinance where the merchant will be charged with violating the ordinance if they turn on the gas pump before taking payment?

In a nearby community you cannot call the police if someone drives off w/o paying because of this new ordinance. Calling to report I guess, would be like confessing.

The police here say driving off w/o paying for gas is a civil matter. They got tired of having to answer these kind of calls.

The police say that when you turn on the pump w/o payment is like entering into a civil contract.

If the Georgia case indeed is a civil matter, then the police had no right to intervene.

Maybe that's what it's coming to. Pay before you eat, pay before you pump, pay before you bed down. If that's the case, police service calls for theft of service would drastically drop.

Anonymous said...


Dispute resolution is another term for officer discretion and community policing is another hyped up federal government word for getting off your a.. and knowing the people you work for.

Officers have always had discretion, unless they are working for an agency that mandates arrests in a micromanagement style of administration.

Some officers take discretion too far, in the sense "because we can." Those types need weeding out and no training is going to change their mindset except for making them part their wallet with time off.

And the term "community policing" is a joke. We were doing "community policing" in rural Hickville, TX ,as many people refer to us, before Bill Clinton even knew what it was like to get off your a.. and get out of the patrol car, go in for a cup of coffee, go in the stores, go to the elementary school and just keep the line of communications open.

FleaStiff said...

What is it that makes people think that "no sharing" means that some modest degree of sharing is going to be tolerated by the owner? If you share, you pay for a separate meal. Period.