In January 2004, 42-year-old Donna Bjerklie brought her car to Vince’s Body Shop in Bismarck, North Dakota, for repairs. Nine months later, on September 28, 2004, Bjerklie demanded the return of her car. She was told the car would not be released unless the bill of $1,038.45 was paid, so she wrote a check for $1,000.
Bjerklie immediately took the car to a competing repair shop and was told that much of the work for which she had been billed had not been completed at all. The same day, Bjerklie called her bank and ordered a stop payment on the check. The stop payment form said, “Business hide car for seven months, check to get car.”
Bjerklie was charged with theft of services in December 2004 and she demanded a jury trial. When the case came to trial in Burleigh County District Court, the prosecution made a motion to bar the defense from introducing evidence of insurance claim estimates or other evidence showing that she was overcharged. Bjerklie intended to present evidence that certain repairs for which she was billed were never performed and that the amount that was billed was in fact more than should have been charged based on the work that was actually done.
The judge granted the motion, saying that Bjerklie had other alternatives to resolve the dispute instead of writing a check, taking the car and then cancelling the check. “The evidence will not delve into other people’s assessments, but will enter upon the presentation of a statement as a fair market for services rendered, whether or not they were paid for, whether or not they were received, and it is (in) that context she got the car back,” the judge said.
In light of that ruling, on December 8, 2005 Bjerklie entered a conditional guilty plea so that she could appeal the judge’s decision. The judge sentenced her to six months in jail, but the sentence was suspended.
In July 2006, the North Dakota Supreme Court reversed the judge’s ruling and remanded the case to allow Bjerklie to withdraw her guilty plea because Bjerklie should have been allowed to present estimates from her insurance company or a competing business so that the jury could have decided whether there actually was a theft of services.
The prosecution had argued that under the theft of services statute, the amount stolen was the “highest value by any reasonable standard.”
The court held that “(a)lthough a jury could find that the amount invoiced by Vince’s was ‘the highest value by any reasonable standard,’ it was error for the district court to remove that determination from the province of the jury and to deprive Bjerklie of the opportunity to prove a lesser amount was the correct value.”
On August 25, 2006, after Bjerklie withdrew her guilty plea, the Burleigh County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charge.
– Maurice Possley