By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Following the weekend beginning 3 May 2014, Wallabadah service station owner Ivan Hulbert was not a happy man, as he’d basically worked for free over the two day period, after a total of five motorists had failed to pay for their fuel and simply driven off at his New England petrol station.
The worst case over the crime-filled weekend involved two utes filled with freshly chopped wood filling up and taking off with $150 worth of petrol between them. Hulbert was distracted at the time the ute drivers perpetrated the crime, as he was serving morning tea to a group of motorcyclists.
Mr Hulbert had been the owner of the Tank ‘N Tummy service station for six years in 2014. And the then 66-year-old was fed up with the fail-to-pays, as they were taking a heavy toll on business, which saw him making only $10 off every $100 worth of fuel he sold.
So, at 5 pm on the Sunday evening, Hulbert implemented a new payment system, whereby drivers were required to pay for their petrol prior to filling up. And by the following Tuesday, the service station owner reported that customers had been very supportive of the prepay system.
The crime of larceny
If the two woodchopping ute drivers had been apprehended by the police, they could have been charged with larceny, also known as stealing or theft, which is an offence under section 117 of the Crimes Act 1900 that carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison
To establish a larceny, the prosecution is required to prove that:
- The defendant took and carried away property,
- The property belonged to another,
- The owner did not consent to the taking,
- The defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the property, and
- The defendant’s actions were dishonest
Defences to the charge include duress, necessity and having a ‘claim of right’ over the property – which means a genuinely belief of a legal entitlement to it.
The offence is not established where a driver fills up their car only to realise they don’t have the money to pay for it. Under those circumstances, the driver would be well advised to leave their details with the petrol station attendant and return to pay as soon as possible.
A rising crime in Sydney
As 9 News reported last week, there’s currently an epidemic of drive-offs being perpetrated in the Sydney Metropolitan region. On average, there’s 21 drivers who fail to pay each day, and this is costing retailers $50 million a year in lost revenue.
Figures supplied by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) reveal that over the 12 month period ending in March this year there had been 7,527 failure to pay for petrol offences committed in the Sydney region.
BOCSAR acting executive director Jackie Fitzgerald said, “What we generally find with this offence is that the increase in the prevalence of the offence – stealing petrol – does sync quite well with increases in petrol prices.”
Indeed, a 2006 BOCSAR report co-authored by Ms Fitzgerald found that the extra individuals who perpetrate this crime when fuel prices rise are generally happy to pay for petrol when the price falls again. And the report suggested that a prepay system might be a way of reducing drive-offs.
One way drive-off offenders avoid getting caught is by using stolen licence plates. The BOCSAR report found that a noted increase in the number of fail to pay offences is accompanied by a rise in the number of licence plate thefts being reported.
The hotspots for petrol thieves in the Greater Sydney area are Blacktown, Penrith, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool and Cumberland, while more affluent areas in the region – such as Hunters Hill, Woollahra and Mosman – have the lowest reported levels of the crime.
Sydney servo vigilantes
As this crime continues to be so prevalent in NSW, a number of service station owners have banded together to form Servo Watch. The service station vigilante group founded earlier this year aims to keep petrol thieves accountable by posting photos and footage of them in action.
The Servo Watch Facebook page features numerous drive-off incidents captured by CCTV cameras. Many of the posts detail the licence plate number of the vehicle involved. And in one instance, it’s clear that a driver has tried to disguise his identity by altering the C on his plate, so it reads O.
“Servo Watch was born from a common belief: that we are all responsible for our actions,” reads a page statement. “This page is dedicated to showcasing the various characters roaming Australia, alerting fellow business owners and citizens that rodents exist in even the greatest countries.”
Law enforcement response
As of 1 September 2013, NSW police has standardised the way reports of drive-offs are dealt with. Prior to the change, incidents were reported over the phone to local police and then an officer was sent out to the service station to make a crime report.
However, these days, a service station attendee can report such a crime over the internet via a Failure to Pay Fuel Reporting Form. NSW police recommends that the actual witness to the crime fills out the form, which then has to be emailed to police.
The report will be assessed by the Local Area Command. And following this, an officer will contact the service station to arrange a time for the witness to attend the police station, so as to make a formal statement and provide any CCTV footage of the incident.
Is prepaid the way?
A follower of Servo Watch posted a statement last Friday, questioning why petrol theft is still an issue in Australia, as in the US the crime doesn’t exist. This is because drivers have to pay for their fuel prior to taking it in the States, similar to the system Mr Hulbert implemented at his servo.
However, it seems the New England prepay service mightn’t have been such a success. When Sydney Criminal Lawyers googled “Tank ‘N Tummy service station Wallabadah”, a notice came up stating “permanently closed”. And the phone number linked to the business has been disconnected.