[ Update (11/2/2011): Safeway has dropped the charges stemming from this incident, and rescinded its one year ban of the Leszczynskis. None of the commentary on the story is affected by this development. The damage is done, including to Safeway’s image. The fact that the grocery chain decided not to do any more damage, and took a week to decide it, is not anything to admire.]
Periodically Ethics Alarms breaks into a debate over whether prosecutorial discretion is fair and just. When appropriate, it is fair and just, and here is an example of the kind of injustice that occurs when the law is enforced without concern for proportion, intent, or common sense.
The villain in this case was not a prosecutor, however, but a Safeway manager.
Nicole Leszczynski, who is 30-weeks pregnant, her husband Marcin, and daughter Zophia were shopping at a Hawaii Safeway where they bought about $50 worth of groceries. During their shopping, Nicole began feeling faint, and ate two chicken sandwiches, a deal at only $5. The couple forgot about the sandwiches when they checked out their other items, however. (Full disclosure: I’ve done this. With a banana.) The store detained them and refused to accept payment. Then the store manager called the police, and they were placed under arrest for larceny.
In accordance with police policy when both parents are arrested, 3-year-old Zophia was taken by Child Protective Services, and not returned to the Leszczynskis until the next day.
By what possible reasoning process could it have made sense—to anyone, from the manager to police, to subject a family, including a pregnant woman and young child, to this ordeal as the result of the failure to pay for two chicken sandwiches? Even if the family had been planning a brazen chicken sandwich heist all along, the sensible, logical, reasonable and caring response would be to give them the benefit of the doubt. Is Safeway concerned about a possible rash of sandwich thefts? Did they need to make an example of someone, and decided on the Leszczynskis?
Ethical decision-making is often difficult, but it shouldn’t be difficult in a situation like this. Any thought at all, other than an undifferentiated no-tolerance reflex, should yield the right answer. This is a sub-set of the duty of competence: the duty to think.
Upon inexcusably delayed reflection, Safeway issued this statement:
“It appears we may not have handled this matter in the best possible way and we are taking the situation seriously.”