Police have decided it's no longer criminal to dine and dash
Police in Auckland have chosen not to investigate at least two cases of restaurant dine-and-dash thieves, saying it is a civil matter.
Auckland University Associate Professor of Law Kenneth Palmer said the decision seemed to show police were "just not interested in this sort of thing, they can't be bothered or they're understaffed".
And Labour Party police spokesperson Stuart Nash hit out at the police decision, calling it a breach of the "social contract" between police and citizens expecting protection from crime.
In the most recent case, a brazen trio, well-dressed and frivolous, left a Thai restaurant almost $300 out of pocket.
Dining at the Grasshopper, a modern Thai restaurant in Auckland's Stamford Plaza, the customers went out for a smoke three times between courses.
Going out for a fourth, they took off, leaving a $291 bill behind.
"You would think people would be more honest," restaurant owner Bow Manoonpong said.
Armed with CCTV footage, Manoonpong went to the police to file an incident report.
She was told it was a civil matter, and there was nothing the police could do for her.
"Where can I find these people to sue them? I don't know who they are," Manoonpong said.
A police media centre spokesperson confirmed that Manoonpong would not be receiving any assistance in tracking down the banquet bandits.
"It was reported to us for insurance purposes only, it's a civil matter and we won't be investigating."
Last month, the same thing happened to Celina Bui, who manages the Las Vista Spanish Mediterranean Restaurant in Auckland's St Heliers.
After six meals and seven drinks, a group of four left behind a $168 bill and a declined eftpos card.
"I reported everything, and I also gave them the [eftpos] card number of that guy," Bui said.
It should have been a easy case to crack, Bui thought, all the police had to do was contact the bank.
But again, the police said it was a civil matter. They took down the information, but as it was less than $500, they said they wouldn't investigate.
"Now if people know that police aren't going to do anything, people are going to keep doing that.
"It's really ridiculous, because when you take something from the shop, it's a crime," Bui said.
Despite the police view on the Auckland incident, in other parts of the country such cases are prosecuted.
Just last month, three would-be thieves were apprehended in Blenheim attempting to steal away into the night without paying for a $311.50 bill.
The three Belgian nationals were convicted of obtaining by deception, and were sentenced to pay reparations.
So where does the law stand on such unsavory diners?
"It looks pretty obvious that this is an intention to obtain a benefit by fraud," said Palmer, from the University of Auckland.
"It's not much different from shoplifting ... it's a brazen thing, isn't it? It's like filling up with petrol and not paying."
Such dishonesty can be considered a civil matter in the sense that it is debt owed for services.
But, much like shoplifting or ditching a taxi without paying the fare, Palmer said dining and dashing was certainly a crime.
Any decision not to investigate was purely a policy decision, and set a bad example.
"It seems absolutely clear to me that in Auckland the police are just not interested in this sort of thing, they can't be bothered or they're understaffed.
"It's the same with burglary, they may come and take fingerprints, they may investigate but more often they'll say here's a copy of your report for insurance purposes."
It could be a question of scale and feasibility for the police. In a big city such as Auckland, it may be that investigating smaller-scale theft was considered a task too hard.
Nonetheless, Palmer disapproved.
"They should up hold the law, it's their job.
"Otherwise, you do get to the point where people do start to take the law into their own hands," he said.
Which means there's little business owners can do to prevent such dishonesty.
"The implicit message is, perhaps, don't serve people that don't look trustworthy," said Palmer.
Stuart Nash, Labour's police spokesperson, was angered over the police's apparent lack of enthusiasm for investigating such incidents.
"Sure, you know, $300 is not $300,000, but it is still a business where people work incredibly hard under trying conditions and for the police to say we're not interested I actually find quite insulting to be honest.
"This is theft, by any other name, and to say that they're just not interested … sends a terrible message," he said.
The lack of interest in such cases showed the police were under resourced, he said.
"I think it's an absolute breach of the social contract.
"What we expect is that if a crime is perpetrated, that the police will show up and try their best to solve it.
"If I was the Minister of Police what I would do is send a very clear directive to my commissioner that I would like to see a change of culture where every reported incident was taken seriously," Nash said.
A spokeswoman for Police Minister Judith Collins said the matter was operational and referred all questions to the police.