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What Happens When You Dine and Dash?

Key Takeaways:

  • Dining and dashing involves ordering food and drinks at a restaurant and leaving without paying the bill. 
  • Dining and dashing can be a violation of local and state criminal laws.
  • In most states, the penalties for leaving a restaurant without paying can range from an infraction to misdemeanor charges.

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?

What happens if you dine and dash can depend on state laws. If you want to know what can happen in dine-and dash-incidents, talk to a local criminal defense lawyer.

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

At the heart of the issue is taking advantage of the honor system. Except for fast food and counter service and fast food eateries, restaurants usually deliver food tableside before you pay. The restaurant trusts that you will follow through by paying after you eat. When someone breaks this trust, it hurts:

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

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 repeat offense felony to refuse to pay for a restaurant bill over $25. In New York, theft of services and restaurants is a misdemeanor.

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.

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

Will I Get Caught If I Walk Out the Front Door Without Paying?

Before you decide to leave the dining area without paying for your appetizers, there is a risk of dine-and-dash penalties. Even if you make it to the parking lot without paying, the restaurant may have security cameras. A restaurant owner may give the security system pictures to law enforcement or post your picture on social media.

If you are accused of dining and dashing, talk to a local criminal defense lawyer about your legal rights.

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