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John Richardson stands across the street from Mitchell’s IGA in Cheney where he was taken to court over a 99-cent hot dog. (Christopher Anderson)
John Richardson stands across the street from Mitchell’s IGA in Cheney where he was taken to court over a 99-cent hot dog. (Christopher Anderson)

‘Stolen’ hot dog, 99 cents. Baffled jurors, priceless

Call it the great hot dog caper. Or maybe the greatly overblown hot dog caper would be more accurate.

One day last December, Eastern Washington University student John Richardson got himself a German sausage at the self-serve counter at Mitchell’s IGA in Cheney. He ate it as he shopped for peanut butter (crunchy), jelly, bread and other items. When he left, he forgot to pay for the 99-cent dog – though he did pay for more than $28 in groceries.

Store managers approached him once he left the store, refused his efforts to pay for it, and held him for the police to arrive when things got heated. Thirteen weeks later, Richardson was found not guilty by a baffled jury with a minimum of deliberation.

“From all the testimony, you’d have to be an idiot to not realize that the guy simply forgot,” said juror Patrick Reeves. “It took the jury about five minutes to come to a verdict.”

Five minutes would have been about the right time to devote to the case, start to finish. Instead, the taxpayers of Cheney paid for the full legal megillah: The officer who arrived, cuffed the protesting Richardson, and wrote a report in which he described the “stolen” property as a “bronze” German sausage; the prosecuting attorney, who said Richardson’s demeanor and a 12-year-old shoplifting charge on his record persuaded her to pursue the case; the public defender; the judge; the jury pool …

“To me it’s an outrage,” Richardson said. “I just think it was a frivolous thing.”

From the perspective of a store owner, a certain zeal about shoplifting is understandable. In the grocery business, margins are slim, and theft takes a big toll. In a family-owned business like Mitchell’s, the owners can take it even more personally. But it’s hard to understand why this zeal wasn’t tempered somewhere along the way.

Cheney Municipal Prosecutor Julie McKay said she simply doesn’t buy Richardson’s claim that he forgot to pay. She said that it isn’t unusual for someone to steal something while purchasing something else, that a lot of people accused of a crime deny it, and that the fact that Richardson was arguing with the store managers after they confronted him influenced her decision.

“Did I want to try that? Certainly not,” McKay said. “From my perspective, he took something without paying for it. … The jury didn’t feel he was guilty. I disagree with that.”

Everyone seems to agree that Richardson offered to pay for the hot dog when he was confronted by store employees outside the store. The one exception to this is the police report, in which a store manager is quoted saying Richardson refused to pay for the hot dog. According to Reeves, Richardson and public defender Don Richter, that was at odds with testimony at the trial from everyone, including store employees.

“When my client was confronted, he immediately said ‘I’m sorry, I’ll pay for it,’ ” Richter said.

To the store owners, the question of intent was beside the point. Someone who leaves without paying for something has stolen. If you let this slide, where do you draw the line? But that’s simply not the way the law works – a person must intend to steal something for it to be theft.

McKay said the reason this ended up before a jury is that Richardson refused to accept a deal. Here’s an example of a deal he was offered: In exchange for the charges being dropped, he’d pay restitution for the sausage, and pay the store owners a $200 civil penalty.

“So now the $1 hot dog was a $201 hot dog,” Richter said.

The case went to trial Feb. 25. Richardson said that he was committed to proving his innocence, and because he knew that the specter of a shoplifting conviction can hang over you – as his conviction as an 18-year-old had done. But he was adamant that he did not steal the hot dog. After he got it, he walked around the store and ate it in full view of everyone, planning to pay for it with his groceries at the cashier, he said. The managers were watching him closely, and he was aware of them watching – which would make him a pretty poor thief indeed, if it wasn’t an oversight. When he was confronted outside the store, he said the store employees taunted and insulted him, and refused to accept either his explanation or his money.

One of them said, “It’s too late now. We got you,” Richardson said. “It was very humiliating.”

Store officials declined to comment, but it’s clear from court records and interviews that they view this confrontation differently, and say that Richardson was uncooperative and instigated conflict rather than trying to resolve it.

I think it’s safe to say that nobody wanted the case to wind up before a jury, but nobody was willing to budge. Richardson wanted to be cleared, and the prosecutor wanted to send a message – or at least not send the wrong kind of message.

In the end, though, the jury wasn’t on board.

“If you really want to send a message,” Reeves said, “get a good case.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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