Dashing Diner Wins Verdict in Trial Over $46 Tab

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A jury in Pinellas, Florida, recently sided with Lt. Col. Ralph Paul (ret.) after he was prosecuted for not paying a $46 dinner tab.  Mr. Paul had complained after he ordered a "Seafood Saute" and received a dish that he believed was mostly pasta noodles, not seafood.  After various exchanges between Mr. Paul and management, Mr. Paul and his girlfriend left without paying the check.  Restaurant employees took down his license plate and reported him, and Paul was subsequently charged with misdemeanor intent to defraud the restaurant out of the $46.

Probably the government expected a plea bargain, but they did not reckon with Mr. Paul, who strongly disputed what had happened and chose to fight.  In fact, he hired a defense attorney who charges $500 per hour (yes, he went to New York to find a criminal-defense attorney who can bill at that rate), to fight the case involving his dinner tab.

That paid off, as the jury acquitted Paul after a seven-hour trial, having deliberated for less than 30 minutes.  Jurors later said that they did not approve of what Paul had done, but did not believe he had entered the restaurant intending to defraud it, as would have been required to convict.  The upshot was that both Paul and the government spent thousands of dollars in a battle over a $46 dinner.

Community opinion was sharply divided over the case, which became something of a "media frenzy" in Florida.  It might have gone nationwide had Mr. Paul agreed to go on the David Letterman Show as he says he was asked to do, but he maintained (in a three-page letter to the editor he sent a few days into the frenzy) that he never wanted the publicity and was only standing up for what he believed in.

Feel free to add your comments to the several pages of strongly-worded comments posted on the Times’s website, including some from Mr. Paul and from the jurors in the case.

Link: St. Petersburg Times, Oct. 4, 2006