Using public electrical outlets may be an unintended crime

We’ve all done it. Desperate to stay connected, we plug our cell phone, iPad or laptop into any electrical outlet that we can find, juice it up and unplug.

But are we stealing someone’s electricity in the process?

The stakes may seem minor. According to Opower, a United States power marketer, the annual cost to continually power the iPhone 5 is in the range of only $0.41.

Mount Royal University students can be seen plugging in mobile devices on campus regularly.

Photo by Katherine CamartaBut isn’t there a moral and legal principle at stake?

After all, section 326 of the Criminal Code of Canada states that anyone who consumes electricity without “colour of right” is guilty of theft.

Calgary lawyer Emily Joyce explained that “colour of right” refers to an honest belief that would justify or excuse the act in the eyes of the law. In other words, the power “thief” honestly — but, perhaps, mistakenly — believes he has the right to use someone else’s electricity. “

Joyce said, when it comes to plugging in at coffee shops, airports or schools, there is likely a “colour of right” defence since no one seems to object.

She said: “Arguably service providers may actually encourage people to take advantage of outlets in these public settings. Coffee shop owners want people to hang out in their cafes and drink their coffee so they make electrical outlets available to their patrons.”

Since many airports now provide free Internet access inside the terminal, it seems as if free power to charge your battery should go hand-in-hand with free Internet.

As Joyce noted, “it seems reasonable — in those situations — for someone to say, ‘I honestly thought I had permission to do this.’”

“The line isn’t always so easy to draw,” she said. “For example, could you honestly say that you have permission to charge your phone at your doctor’s or dentist’s office? “You would never just use their phone without asking, so maybe the safest bet is to just ask.”

kcamarta@cjournal.ca