Friday, February 3, 2012

On crime and car repairs

A storm is a-brewing in Houston over the cost of auto repairs. City Council is expected to pass a new ordinance that would require repair shops to obtain a car owner's signature before they can do any work that would add $100 or more to the estimate given to the car owner.

Well, yeah, if you tell me it's going to cost X to fix my car, if you find something else wrong that's going to jack the price up, you should call me. If you see something you think needs to be replaced "while you're down there," call me. That's just good business and what most repair shops I've dealt with do.

Under the proposed ordinance, repair shops that don't get authorization before beginning work could be cited by police. The citation would be a Class C misdemeanor, much like the tickets handed out by building inspectors.

Here's the problem. The proposed ordinance would criminalize bad business behavior. Is that what we really need? Do we need to create new criminal offenses? And who would be the person cited? The owner? Manager? Service advisor?

I'm sure the proposal is well-intentioned - unless, of course, the real driving force behind it were the insurance companies hoping to stick it the body and repair shops where people take their cars for work covered by their car insurance. Hmm.

Criminal law should be used to deal with situations that are harmful to society - to discourage such behavior and to punish it when it does occur. But criminalizing the failure to get authorization to do a repair is like using a sledgehammer to drive in a nail.

I know that Class C violations are punishable by nothing more than a fine -- but there's the cost of hiring an attorney and attending court that must be taken into consideration. Then there's the odd notion that you could go to jail should you fail to appear on your court date.

We're dealing with a civil issue here. When you take your car to the shop you are entering into a contract with the shop that you agree to pay them in exchange for them attempting to fix your car. Contract law should govern any dispute between the car owner and the repair shop.

There are far too many criminal laws on our books today. This is one we don't need to create.

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