A construction worker from North Charleston, S.C., is jobless and saddled with a $525 federal citation for mistakenly taking a $0.89 soda refill he thought was free at the VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston.
The construction worker, Christopher Lewis, told WISTV that that the Wednesday incident was an honest mistake for which he tried to make amends by offering to pay the $0.89 for the soda refill when he was confronted by the Federal Police Force.
"Every time I look at the ticket, it's unbelievable to me," Lewis, told WISTV. "I can't fathom the fact that I made a $0.89 mistake that cost me $525."
A hospital spokesperson, however, called the incident "theft of government property." The VA spokesperson said Lewis should have known the refill wasn't free because there are signs all over the hospital informing patrons of the cafeteria to that effect.
Lewis said he never noticed the signs and had refilled for free several times before. On Wednesday, when he went back for a refill, however, he was accosted by a man who identified himself as the chief of police.
"As I was filling my cup up, I turned to walk off and a fella grabbed me by the arm and asked me if was I going to pay for that, and I told him I wasn't aware that I had to pay for that," said Lewis.
It was at this point that he offered to pay for the soda but his offer was refused. He was then taken to a room where he was slapped with shoplifting charges and told not to return to the premises, losing his job in the process.
"I'm done there, at the VA hospital. I'm not allowed to go on the premises anymore. 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 the premises," said Lewis.
The hospital spokesperson said Lewis had reportedly become aggressive during the encounter with the police and later released the statement below:
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.