Should Topping Off an Electric Car Be Considered Stealing?

Bay Area Plans Major Expansion Of Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

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While electric cars are selling in greater numbers, they’re still relatively rare. Compared to conventional cars with internal combustion engines, they’re only a small fraction of the total number of cars sold. That said, their numbers are growing, and with plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles on track to continue gaining market share (especially in urban areas) they’ll become much more important, as well.

As electric vehicles slowly become more integrated, the policies put in place concerning their sale and use will have much wider-reaching effects. With the development of the charging infrastructure lagging behind the number of vehicles being sold, one question that needs to be answered is whether or not it should be illegal to top off an electric car.

It may sound absurd, but it’s actually already been an issue. Two years ago, a man in Georgia was arrested for plugging in his Nissan Leaf at a local middle school.

In a report that did not reflect well on the quality of the officer’s education, he wrote, “I asked him why his vehicle was plugged into the power at the school. He told me that was an excepted [sic] practice and that I was making to [sic] much of it. I asked him if he has [sic] asked the Dekalb County school system if he could take the power. He told me that I did not ask if my patrol car can dirty the air — did you? He says, ‘No you did not.'”

Eventually the charges against the man were dropped. Despite the warrant for his arrest initially claiming he stole up to $25 worth of electricity, the actual total came out closer to four cents.

On the one hand, a theft is a theft. The man in question took something that cost money and didn’t pay for it. It also appears he wasn’t particularly cooperative after seeing the officer searching through his car, and that may have exacerbated the issue. Then again, the value of the electricity he technically stole was less than a nickel.

To most people, arresting someone over the technical theft of four cents is ridiculous, and it’s probably a good thing the charges were dropped. What it doesn’t do, though, is answer the question of where someone stands if they top off their car at a school. If the case had gone to court, there would at least be some precedent in place. Instead, we’re left with more questions.

electric vehicle charging EV charge

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Part of the problem is that people have been plugging in their personal items for years without an issue. If someone can be arrested for charging an electric car in a school parking lot, could I be arrested for charging my laptop at the courthouse? Could I be arrested for charging my cell phone in a school theater? What if I charge my phone at a rec-league baseball game? Could I be arrested for that?

If you don’t think someone could be arrested for charging a cell phone, look no further than the story of a man being arrested in 2012 for charging his phone in a park.

The obvious solution would be for the electrical charging network to expand enough that anyone looking to charge an electric car has access to a proper charging station. You can technically charge an electric car from a wall outlet, but it’s so slow, fully charging a Nissan Leaf would take more than 12 hours. Considering how slowly wall outlets charge, topping off an electric car from one is mostly the result of the rarity of charging stations and the limited range of most electric cars. As both of those factors improve, you can expect it to become less of an issue.

Even if it becomes less of a problem, at some point the legal question needs to be answered. Technically, plugging an electric car in and not paying for the electricity you receive is stealing. Then again, the monetary value of what you’re stealing is unlikely to amount to anything substantial. Even if 100 electric cars charge at the same school building for 30 minutes each, the cost to the school district would be $5.

While it will probably stay technically illegal, the cost is negligible, and there’s no way it’s worth the time and cost to taxpayers to arrest someone who tops off their electric car. It also can’t hurt to put up signs asking people not to top off their cars in the parking lot.

At the same time, though, if you drive an electric car, and there’s the option to use a real charging station, it’s probably best to use it. You’ll charge your car way faster, you never have to worry about bored police officers arbitrarily deciding to arrest you, and it’s not like you’ll save much money.

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