Criminal Law

What Happens When You Dine and Dash?

We've heard stories. We wonder if people really do it. And yes, some of us may have even done it.

Dining and dashing (also known as a “chew and screw” or “dine and ditch”) is when you eat (or drink) at a restaurant or bar and leave without paying the bill. Morally, this is wrong, but what about legally?

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

At the heart of the issue is taking advantage of the honor system. The restaurant (usually) delivers food to you before you pay, and the restaurant trusts that you will follow through by paying after you eat. When someone breaks this trust, it hurts:

  • The restaurant loses money on your "free" food and drinks
  • The server does not get a tip, or they may even have to cover the missing cost in some states
  • Future guests may have to pay more to make up lost income, and servers may also be far more suspicious of new diners

Legal Consequences of Dining and Dashing

In many states, dining and dashing is not considered a serious criminal issue. Some states, like California, charge those who are caught with petty theft. But other states, like Mississippi, have laws that make it a felony to refuse to pay for a restaurant bill over $25.

Do Servers Pay For Dine-and-Dash Customers?

In some states, a server must pay for the dine-and-dash customers, especially when a particular server has multiple walkouts. Most states have rules that require an employer to alert an employee of any deductions from their wages in advance.

That being said, many restaurants budget for walkouts, and the server does not have to pay.

Can You Chase or Confront Dine and Dashers?

For most companies, the general rule is that you shouldn't confront customers outside of the premises. Chasing someone who did not pay is done at your own risk. You will likely not have support from the manager or owner if you pursue a customer.

If you do catch someone, you can make a "citizen's arrest." The police can take over at this point. You can also report the person's license plate so the police can run a DMV search. If the police find them, they will review the bill and prior behavior. They can make the diner and dasher pay for the bill, and they may be charged with a misdemeanor.

Risks of Chasing or Confronting Customers

Check with the manager or owner, but most restaurants do not want you to seek vigilante justice for an unpaid bill.

Many restaurants realize the cost of the food is not worth potential injury to an employee chasing after someone. In fact, you could injure someone accidentally while chasing after a fleeing walkout. That becomes a bigger issue since both the employee and the employer could be found liable for any injuries or damages.