News & Politics

Italian High Court Says It's Not a Crime to Steal Food if You're Poor and Hungry

The Italian supreme court has tossed the conviction of a homeless man who was caught stealing $5 worth of food from a grocery store.

The man, of Ukrainian descent, was fined $115 and sentenced to six months in jail.

The decision was cheered by editorialists across Italy.

Washington Post:

“The condition of the accused and the circumstances in which he obtained the merchandise show that he had taken the little amount of food he needed to overcome his immediate and essential requirement for nourishment,” it ruled. “People should not be punished if, forced by need, they steal small quantities of food in order to meet the basic requirement of feeding themselves.”

he Italian newspaper La Stampa praised the verdict in a front-page editorial.

“The court’s decision reminds us all that in a civilised country no one should be allowed to die of hunger,” it read.

Corriere Della Sera noted in an opinion piece that statistics show the ranks of Italy’s poor grow by 615 people daily and that it was “unthinkable that the law should not take note of reality,” the BBC reports. The piece also took issue with how long the judicial system took to arrive at its final decision.

The ruling is “right and pertinent,” Italiaglobale.it wrote in a piece. The decision is rooted in a concept that “informed the Western world for centuries — it is called humanity,” it wrote, according to a BBC translation.

What’s wrong with this picture? A lot. First of all, a legal system that puts a man away for stealing $5 worth of goods is a parody of justice. Haven’t these people ever heard of community service? Or even better, restitution to the grocery store owner, working off his debt by sweeping the floor or doing some other menial task?

But the Italian commentariat takes a ludicrous position. If the thief was near starvation, he wouldn’t be able to walk around a store much less have the strength to steal anything. And if he wasn’t close to death, you have to look at what other options he had to ameliorate his hunger.

Is the Catholic Church out of the charity business? Does the Italian government not feed the homeless? To believe that the thief had no other option to stay alive than to steal from a grocery store is idiotic. 

Of course, the judges and commentators can be as generous as they like. They don’t own the grocery store. Nor will they be impacted by higher food prices because of the theft. It’s easy to appear tolerant when it isn’t your money walking out the door.

The “civilized” and “western” world did, indeed, give people the notion of “humanity” and altruism. But western civilization also gave us two other marvelous gifts: the rule of law and property rights. Clearly, the prison term for such a minor crime is an offense against modernism and fairness. But somehow, the court should have upheld the rule of law and the rights of people to be secure in their property. There must have been other options besides throwing out the conviction or sending the poor guy to jail for 6 months.

So if a guy is caught walking out of a store with food, are they going to ask him if he’s poor and hungry?