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The crime of defrauding an innkeeper may sound like an ancient law that does not have relevance in today’s society, but that isn’t the case.

In California, defrauding an innkeeper has a much broader context, making it illegal to obtain certain items without paying for them.

At the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, we represent clients in San Diego County and throughout Southern California facing all types of serious criminal charges, including defrauding an innkeeper and other theft-related offenses.

What Is Defrauding an Innkeeper?

The crime of defrauding an innkeeper is outlined in California Penal Code section 537 (PC 537), which makes it illegal to “obtain any food, fuel, services, or accommodations at a hotel, inn, restaurant, boardinghouse, lodging house, apartment house, bungalow court, motel, marina, marine facility, autocamp, ski area, or public or private campground, without paying therefor, with intent to defraud the proprietor or manager thereof.”

That sounds complex, but this is essentially California’s “dine and dash” law.

The statute also prohibits skiers and snowboarders from “poaching,” which means using a ski resort without a valid lift ticket.

Similarly, this law covers reselling lift tickets when the resort does not allow the resale of their tickets.

Punishments for Defrauding an Innkeeper

As is often the case with California theft offenses, the seriousness of defrauding an innkeeper charge depends largely on the value of the goods or services.

For example, if the value is less than $950, the crime carries a fine of up to $1,000 or a term of incarceration of up to six months. However, if the value exceeds $950, then the maximum sentence increases to three years in prison.  

How Does the Government Prove Someone Defrauded an Innkeeper?

Under state and federal law, every element of a criminal offense must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements of defrauding an innkeeper are:

  • You obtained a good or service from a business;
  • You did not pay for the goods or services; and
  • You intended to defraud the business.

In any theft case, your intent is a critical element of the offense. If the prosecution cannot prove that you intended to steal, a judge or jury cannot find you guilty.

However, PC 537 contains a built-in presumption that can make it easier for the prosecution to prove its case. Specifically, evidence that you left a business without paying can be considered evidence of your intent to defraud.

In other words, if you leave a restaurant without paying, the burden shifts to you to prove that you did not intend to defraud the restaurant.

Defenses to Defrauding an Innkeeper Charges

Despite the presumption that anyone who leaves a business without paying for goods or services did so with the intent to defraud the business, there are still defenses to these charges.

The most common defenses to defrauding an innkeeper involve negating the intent element of the offense.

For example, assume you go out to eat with several friends. At the end of the meal, you get up to use the restroom. When you return, you see the bill on the table and assume that one of your friends took care of it.

You then walk out without paying. In this case, you mistakenly believed that someone else paid the bill. If that mistake was reasonable, then it may be a defense to any charges you face.

Although less common, another defense to defrauding an innkeeper involves a situation in which you act under duress. Duress is a legal defense in which you claim that you only broke the law because someone else threatened you.

For example, if someone comes up to you at a bar, presses an object into your back, and tells you to follow them outside, you may be under the belief that if you didn’t go with them, they would shoot you.

In this case, if you failed to pay your bar tab, you could argue you only did so because you were under duress.

Have You Been Charged with Defrauding an Innkeeper?

If you face charges of defrauding an innkeeper, it is imperative that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side.

At the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, our dedicated team of Southern California criminal defense lawyers represent clients in all types of theft offenses, including defrauding an innkeeper.

We understand how stressful it is to have criminal charges hanging over your head and do everything we can to ensure an arrest has as little impact on your life as possible.

To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, contact the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, at 619-304-1359 today. You can also reach us through our online form.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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