A Charleston, South Carolina man is speaking out after receiving a $525 ticket following his soda refill at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital.
As reported by WCSC Live 5 News, construction worker Christopher Lewis was working on-site at the downtown Charleston VA Medical center and during lunch in the hospital cafeteria, he grabbed a refill of his drink without paying. Lewis failed to notice posted signs indicating that refills were not free. "As I was filling my cup up, I turned to walk off and a fella grabbed me by the arm and asked me, ‘Was I going to pay for that?’ And I told him I wasn't aware that I had to pay for that," Lewis recalled. The construction worker said that he never saw the posted signs and admitted that he had refilled drinks in the past without paying.
Mr. Lewis then attempted to pay for the $0.89 refill, but he said that he was not allowed to. The officer, who is also the chief of the Federal Police Force that patrols the VA hospital, issued Lewis a ticket for shoplifting. "I never had an option to make right what I had done wrong," said Lewis. "Every time I look at the ticket, it's unbelievable to me, you know. I can't fathom the fact that I made an 89 cent mistake that cost me $525." A hospital spokesperson called his actions theft of government property.
Lewis was also told not return to the property, which effectively meant he was off the construction job. The North Charleston man said, "I'm done there, at the VA hospital. I'm not allowed to go on the premises anymore. Not even, I asked him can I still work on the job site and just bring my lunch and not got to the cafeteria and he said he wanted me off of the premises." WCSC reports that the hospital spokesperson told them that “it was her understanding that Lewis was aggressive during the confrontation.”
The VA Medical center issued the following statement:
“The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is fortunate to have a highly trained Federal police force to ensure the safety of our patients, visitors and employees. As Federal police they are responsible for enforcing the law. Today a Federal citation was issued for shoplifting in the VA cafeteria to an individual who stated to VA police he had not paid for refills of beverages on multiple occasions, even though signs are posted in the cafeteria informing patrons refills are not free. Shoplifting is a crime. The dollar amount of the ticket is not determined by VA as it is a Federal citation. The citation may be paid or the recipient may choose to appear in Federal court to contest it.”
Lewis does plan to contest the ticket and said, "It's about pretty much I guess you would say, getting your face back. You know, I want everybody to know that I made a simple mistake, that I'm not a thief, that I'm not dishonest. You know, I'm trying to do the right thing."
UPDATE April 18, 2014 8:32 AM PDT:
WCSC reports that hospital officials have decided to give Christopher Lewis a warning instead of the $525 citation. The AP noted that Tonya C. Lobbestael, a VA spokesperson, confirmed that the hospital cafeteria does have posted signs with the price of drink refills and said that failing to pay for them is considered shoplifting.
The VA released this statement on Thursday:
“In reviewing the case, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center has determined a warning in lieu of a citation is sufficient in this case."