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Man at Hospital Ordered to Pay $525 for Refilling 89-Cent Drink

Man also banned from working at VA Medical Center.

WCSC screen grab shows charges against worker.
WCSC screen grab shows charges against worker.

The cost of a drink isn't what it used to be for a North Charleston man who was slapped with a $525 fine for refilling his 89-cent drink and now faces federal charges.

On-site construction worker Chris Lewis told WCSC News he didn't know refills at the VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston weren't free.

A hospital spokesperson called it a "theft of government property," the station reported.

"Every time I look at the ticket, it's unbelievable to me,” says Lewis, who works construction. “I can't fathom the fact that I made an 89-cent mistake that cost me $525."

Lewis says he never noticed "No Free Re-Fill" signs and admits he had refilled his drink without paying on other occasions. He says after he went back for seconds on Wednesday, a man who identified himself as the chief of police, stopped him.

"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 told WCSC that he tried to pay the $0.89 right there, but wasn't allowed to. He says he wasn't given the chance to pay the cashier either.

"I never had an option to make right what I had done wrong."

He says he was taken to a room, given the $525 ticket for shoplifting and told not to return to the property.

"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."

A hospital spokesperson says it was her understanding that Lewis was aggressive during the confrontation.

The medical center released 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 and his fiancé have contacted the Internal Affairs Office in Columbia. He says he will contest the fine in federal court.


Amy May 06, 2014 at 09:14 AM
The profit margin on fountain drinks is so high that "same visit" refills should always be free! However, if this guy was working there daily, the "I didn't see the signs" defense doesn't float. He obviously knew the policy and was more than likely working the system by bringing back the same cup regularly. I'm sure they had been watching him do it for a while. Even so, a written warning would have been more appropriate, with a fine imposed if he then failed to comply. But I suppose that would make too much sense for the VA.
Richard Miller May 06, 2014 at 09:28 PM
Isn't $525 the price hospitals charge the patients in their rooms for a soda?
Igor May 06, 2014 at 09:38 PM
Amy you read more into the story than what was printed. No one said it was the same cup. He didn't work there. He was an on site construction worker.
Mary Pat May 14, 2014 at 11:15 AM
he needs an attorney to file an unlawful discharge claim on his behalf, i would get one if i were him.
Ken May 17, 2014 at 06:50 PM
If he is smart he would just pay the fine and be more carefull in the future. The reason being that self representation is not allowed in Federal court. And only Federal attorneys are allowed to practice law in a Federal court. They start at a minimum fee of $10,000 plus $500 per every hour spent on your case. If he was indigent he could qualify for a court appointed Federal Attorney. On top of that whether you win or lose the case there is also a Minimum court cost fee of $200. But the worst surprise he will discover is that any amount over $100 in theft from a Federal building or site is a felony charge which will remain on his record for the rest of his life. If he loses the case he could end up facing even a larger fine, possible jail time or at minimum Federal probation with a tracking devise strapped to his ankle with a minimum monitoring charge of $150 per month and having to pay for a seperate hard line phone line at his home that reports his whereabouts to a monitoring site. On top of that he will lose his right to vote, be banned from owning any firearms for the rest of his life and will not be allowed any professional licenses for the rest of his life like a real estate license, medical license, pest control license, liquor license etc. etc. If I were him I would just pay the fine and hope that they don't enforce any of the other perks they can impose on him if he takes it to court.

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