Home News The Bill Targets Sophisticated Gas Smugglers

The Bill Targets Sophisticated Gas Smugglers

The Bill Targets Sophisticated Gas Smugglers

State lawmakers are moving to put a kibosh on one electronic method of stealing increasingly expensive gasoline.

Legislation awaiting House action would make it a Class 3 felony to use what’s known as a “pulsar manipulation device” to trick gas pumps into thinking that just a little bit of fuel is being dispensed when hundreds of gallons could actually be going through the nozzle. That would carry a presumed penalty of 3.5 years in state prison.

But not everyone is convinced that SB 1177 sponsored by Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale is needed, given that the theft of gasoline itself already is a crime.

At the heart of the problem is that gas pumps monitor the flow of fuel electronically rather than mechanically. It is that monitoring by the internal pulsar that shows up on the pump and on screens in the store.

Mike Williams, lobbyist for the Arizona Petroleum Marketers Association, said thieves who can break into a pump can use the device to interfere with that signal. Put simply, what is actually being pumped is far more than the pump indicates.

Chris Olson, who owns 13 SuperPumper stations in the Phoenix area, said it’s happen to him seven times, losing almost 2,000 gallons of fuel. And he said an associate with Circle K told him that company had lost “hundreds of thousands of gallons” nationwide through the scam.

It does require at least a bit of work to install the device as thieves need to open it up and install it. But Olson said that isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

“The thieves can get into the pump in about 30 seconds if they have the right equipment or the right tools to open the side of the pump,” he said.

That, Olson said, can happen even if the station is staffed.

“They pull up, they block themselves with the door of the vehicle,” he said.

“They then do what they have to do,” Olson continued. “They put this device on. And they start pumping the gas out.”

Williams said that they are able to steal that much gasoline at a time because they will have a truck with a large tank or bladder that can store 300 to 400 gallons.

That still leaves the question of why create a special law – and why include a Class 3 felony.

Current statutes make theft of something worth between $1,000 and $2,000 a Class 6 felony. That carries a presumptive term of a year in prison but can be handled by the courts as a misdemeanor.

And the value of 400 gallons of gasoline, even at $4.50 a gallon, is only $1,800.

But Williams insisted there is a need for this law.

“Gas is not covered by insurance,” he told members of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on the measure. “A theft of this magnitude could actually put a mom and pop (operation) out of business.”

Of course, all that assumes not only that the perpetrators could be caught but that they actually would be prosecuted, even if there were a tough new law aimed specifically at this crime.

Olson said he actually has video of the thieves.

“We took them to the Phoenix Police Department,” he said. “They basically told me there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Part of the problem, Olson said, is the vehicle had no license plate.

“It was doing it in the middle of the night,” he said, and at a time when the station was closed because he doesn’t have the staff to operate 24/7.

“It took them about 50 minutes to pump about 350 gallons of diesel,” Olson said.

“They did that five times, five separate incidents,” he continued. “One of the incidents they actually did it twice in one night so they took almost 700 gallons in that one evening.”

That led Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Phoenix, to question how a new law would help if the police didn’t have enough evidence to pursue the thieves under existing laws.

“I believe any law that we could pass will help on this specific issue,” Olson responded. “If these devices continue to be used, more businesses will suffer losses and it will in fact impact all of us in the price we have to pay for fuel.”

Olson told lawmakers that service station operators are doing what they can outside the realm of criminal

law. For example, he said, there are devices available that can be installed over the internal pulsar device to protect against such manipulation.

“They’re quite pricey,” he said. “But we’ve done that with some of our pumps.”

And Olson said some manufacturers are making such protections part of new pumps.

“But any deterrent we could use and give stiff penalties to people that engage in this activity would be very beneficial,” he said.

The proposal is being opposed by the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice Reform, lawyers who represent criminal defendants.

“This is a special interest bill,” lobbyist Charity Clark testified.

“It’s for a very, very specific group,” she said. “Opening this up just creates the opportunity for other special interests to come in and flood our Legislature with bills that only represent their interests.”

And Clark said if the Class 6 felony provides insufficient punishment for gasoline theft, there are other applicable laws dealing with fraudulent schemes that actually have even stiffer penalties.

She also said creating two laws for the same conduct could lead to prosecutors “over-charging” defendants with both violations, allowing them to try to demand consecutive sentences.

Hernandez agreed.

“This sounds like a case of over legislation,” she said.

Before giving their approval to SB 1177 last month, members of the House Judiciary Committee stripped language that would have made it a crime to even possess a pulsar manipulator amid questions of whether there actually are legal uses for such a device.

The measure, which already has cleared the full Senate, now awaits a final House vote.